The Incomparable Power of Christ: Thoughts on Personal Destiny in Ephesians 1 (Keller Project - Part 2)

(Part 2 of the Keller Project by the author of Shadowlands and Songs of Light. See bottom citation for source details.)

There's this amazing statement, or prayer, more accurately, in the book of Ephesians, chapter 1, verses 18-21 (emphasis mine):

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he [God] has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

New York City is a power center in the world, perhaps the biggest. It competes with other cities (i.e. Los Angeles, Tokyo, London) as the center for arts, media, publishing, and finance in the world.

People do not come to New York to think and reflect on the quiet mysteries of life.

They come to do. To take action.

The definition of power is all about this. Power is the ability and freedom to do things.

People come to New York because they want to do something significant. If you can harness even a little of the power and influence of this city, you can have a great deal of power yourself, and you can do big things ("big" in the eyes of the world).

Yet here in Ephesians 1, the writer is talking about a power so massive that it makes all of the power, influence, and significance of New York City look like a pop gun.

It says Christ has "incomparably great power." In the Greek this is a unique phrase. It's one of the few words in the ancient biblical Greek that is understandable to the modern ear without much translation: megatos dynamos

The megaton dynamite of God. 

But the real kicker is the word "incomparably." Older translations might say "exceedingly." But in the Greek Paul's clear intent is to say it can not be compared.

It's hard for our minds to get a hold of that. We understand everything by comparison, especially magnitudes of power and influence. Usually when we try to describe power we compare it to something else.

For example:

A nuclear warhead has one thousandth of the power of a hurricane. And a hurricane has one millionth of the power of an explosion on the surface of the sun. And the sun has one billionth of the power of an exploding supernova.

That's how we think. We always go to the bigger thing to understand the power of something smaller.

So how do we describe the power of God? Do we say He has the power of one billion hurricanes? One trillion supernovas? Is that what Paul is doing?

No. God is not at the top of one of our scales. He's not even on the scale, so how can He be off the scale or anywhere on the grid of measurement and comparison. That's what the phrase means that Paul has written.

Paul, instead of comparing the power to some natural phenomenon we know, is using the resurrection of Christ to describe the power of God: "the same power that raised Jesus from the dead." More on all that in a moment.

Back to the term "incomparable."

We're told in the psalms: power belongs to God. It means not that God has more or less power than anyone or anything else. It means anyone who has even an atom of power has it because God has delegated it. God has all the power.

This is an extremely practical teaching. It may not seem like it. It may seem very grandiose and abstract. But it's actually practical.

We see this practicality at work in Christ's life. When he faced Pilate, Pilate said to Jesus that he could have him killed on the spot. Jesus calmly replied that the only power Pilate had was what God granted him to have.

Jesus' confidence in the power of his Father gave him an immovable strength in the face of a horrible torture and death.

The power of God has no analogue in human history. And God has given that full power to Jesus. Isaiah 40 says Christ on his throne brings the rulers to nothing. 

Knowing this power has personal implications.

Paul isn't praying for you to know about this power, but to know this power--to know it in the depths of your heart and spirit. Do you know it the way Jesus knew it? The way Paul knew it? Does it affect the way you see everything in your life?

Is that power in you and flowing out of you and affecting the world around you?

Paul says in this passage that this power of God can flow through us and bring about affect in the world and turn the world upside down.

If you're going to know this power, you need to first understand in detail what Paul is saying. This passage has three things we need to know:

  1. Resurrection Power
  2. Headship Power
  3. Spiritual Power

Let's begin with resurrection power.

Resurrection Power

Paul uses the resurrection of Christ as the unit of measure for this incomparable power of God. Why didn't Paul say, "this incomparable power is the power that created the galaxies and blows up supernovas and scattered the stars?"

Paul goes straight to the resurrection. Why?

Because there's no power like death. It is the ultimate power arrayed against us. You might learn to split the atom, but you will still die. If you conquer the power of death, nothing in the universe would scare you.

That's exactly what God did with Jesus. God snapped the power of death. Acts 2 says that it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Jesus. Elsewhere Paul says, "O death where is thy sting," which is a taunt.

God, through those writing, mocks death. 

In WWII, there was a Lutheran minister named Hermann who died in the Nazi death camps. After the war, his letter to his parents, which he wrote the day he died, was published. It said the following:

When this letter comes into your hands I shall no longer be among the living. The thing that has occupied our thoughts constantly for many months … is now about to happen. If you ask me what state I am in I can only answer: I am, first, in a joyous mood and, second, filled with a great anticipation. ‘God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ What consolation, what marvelous strength emanates from Christ. I am amazed. In Christ I have put my faith, and precisely today I have faith in him more firmly than ever.

My parents, look up the following passages: 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 14:8. Look anywhere you want in the Bible, and everywhere I find jubilation over the grace that makes us children of God. What can really happen to a child of God? Of what indeed should I be afraid? Everything that till now I have done, struggled for, and accomplished, has at bottom been directed to this one goal, whose barrier I shall penetrate today. “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for them that love him.”

For me, believing will become seeing; hope will become possession, and I shall forever share in Him who is love. Shall I not then be filled with anticipation? What's it going to be like? The things that up to this time I've permitted only to preach about I shall now see. No more secrets. No more puzzles. Today's the great day. From the very beginning I've put everything into the hands of God, and now He demands this end of me. Good. His will be done. Until we meet again above int he presence of the Father of Light, your joyful Hermann.

I don't know if I could do that. I hope I could write a letter like that. But what power enables a human being to stand in the face of death and have this surety, peace, and utter confidence--so confident that, like Paul, the soul can mock death itself? What power makes this possible?

That's why Paul picks out the resurrection. Paul is trying to show us that the power that is working in us, through us, is the same resurrection power that defeated death.

The resurrection is the unit by which you can measure the power in us.

If I say, how much does this book weigh and you say, "5." That doesn't help. You need the unit of measurement.

This is Paul's point: the death-breaking power of the resurrection is the unit of measurement of the power that's in our lives now.

All of death and all his friends--the decay, the breakdown in your life, the destructive side-effects of the fall and of death, the bad habits that tear your inner and outer life down, the confusion, the brokenness, the depression--the power that is in you will someday, sooner or later, defeat death and all of the fruit of death that fills your life.

Do you believe that deep in your heart? Are you sure about it? Do you rejoice in it? Do you know without a doubt that this death-breaking power is in you?

That's what Paul is praying for in Ephesians 1: for you to know this power. Not just know about it. But really know it in your heart and in your practical experience. Paul knew this power, which was why he could write the things he wrote and do the things he did.

This leads us to the second point.

Headship Power

It's not only resurrection power, but the power of God is also known through this concept of Jesus as the "Head." Read Eph. 1:22-23:

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

If you look carefully you'll see something very interesting. It's saying that Jesus is head over both the world and the church--not just the church. Read it closely. It's saying that He rules over all things in the world...for us. It also says we are a part of His body, which is an incredibly intimate statement.

There are two kinds of power going on here:

  • A power that God exercises for us, by ordering everything in the world for us, a power that is working externally in the world, overseeing all things and using all things (good and bad) for us and for the good of our spiritual growth in Christ.

  • A power that God exercises in us.

There's an external and internal power at work at the same time. They're both kinds of headship. Let's look at these two kinds of power.

God's Power in the World

This first phrase in v. 22, "God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church," is nothing less than Romans 8:28, that great promise quoted so often in Christian circles: "All things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose..." This is a stunning promise. It's saying that if you belong to Him, then everything that happens out there is being orchestrated for you.

The verse is clear in Ephesians 1:22, "for" the church: God is orchestrating every little detail.

To be clear, it is rare that we actually see how this works. Occasionally God pulls a curtain pack and we get a glimpse of it.

[Tim Keller now tells a story of how he got a pastorate in Virginia. The following in italics is this story verbatim.]

I remember my first church in Virginia--a little Presbyterian church that was struggling and so happy to get a pastor. They were amazed that they got a pastor, and there was just one or two people desperate enough to take it. But I remember one day getting up and trying to explain this passage. I remember saying, "Listen friends, I'm glad I'm here, you're glad I'm here. Do you know why I'm here? It's because at the very end of my seminary career I decided to become a presbyterian, which made me able to take your church as pastor. Do you know why I became a presbyterian? It's because I came under the influence of a particular teacher in my last semester in seminary. You know why I came under that man's influence? Because he came from England after having tremendous visa problems and was probably not going to get to the United States until the following year, but then somebody cut through the red tape and he came and I fell under his influence. Do you know why the red tape was cut? Because the dean of my seminary was on his knees praying about how are we going to get this guy over here, when Mike Ford walked in, Gerald Ford's son, and asked him what he was praying for? Mike Ford was a student. Do you know why Mike Ford was able to cut the red tape? Because his father was the president. Do you know why his father was the president? [the congregation begins to laugh] Because Nixon resigned. Do you know why Nixon resigned? Because of the Watergate Scandal. Do you know why there was the Watergate Scandal? Because one day a guard noticed in the Watergate building a particular door open that should've been closed. And who knows why? Maybe that day he took a drink at the water fountain and he just happened to notice it." And I looked at my people, and I said, "You know, Watergate was for YOU!" [Congregation laughs] Watergate was for me!"

Occasionally God rips aside the veil and you begin to see the fact: all things happen for a reason--all things work together for God's people. All things. Everything is knit together. 

Of course, that's an easily misunderstood statement in our culture, and it needs further explanation and some disclaimers.

How Christianity's Concept of 'Destiny' Differs from What Both Western and Eastern Religions Say

Christianity is totally unique. The Bible tells us that the way in which God operates is utterly different than the way western and eastern thinking works.

Western religions and western thinking says, "You are in charge of your own destiny. You make your own choices. If they're good choices you ascend and if they're bad choices you descend." And the people who really like the way of thinking are the successful people. It's affirming. They say, "Yeah, I get where I get because of my choices."

Of course, poor and/or unsuccessful people have always felt uptight about that point of view. A recent article in New York media about Oprah Winfrey, in which she talked about her great choices that brought her to the top, provoked some angry letters from people who didn't experience that kind of success. These letters were saying, "She's giving us the impression that those who didn't get to the top just weren't as wonderful or in touch with themselves as she was."

The people who wholly embrace that free will line of thinking are almost always the ones on the top. The people beneath realize, "An awful lot of that success seems to depend on breaks, on who you know and where you were, and where you were born, etc." They get irked at the free will, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps theory about why some people are successful and some are not.

Eastern religions, on the other hand, are very fatalistic. They've always had a tendency to say, "Look, there's this great thing called Fate, and nobody can do anything about it, and all your choices are for not, and where you go is just determined by the faceless Fate."

Christianity will have neither of those things. Christianity is saying, "The answer to what Oprah Winfrey is talking about, the answer to the eastern religions, the thing that liberates and brings it all together is the incomparably great power of God."

God is so great that He works out a plan--a plan that works everything out for the good of your spiritual growth if you belong to Him and for His glory--that takes into consideration all of your choices, yet still accomplishes His plan infallibly.

We see this in the Word. Jacob lied to his father Isaac. Jacob wanted his brother's birthright and cheated his older brother out of it, and because he lied he had to leave his family and flee his brother. Did Jacob experience hardship and pain because of it? Absolutely. Was he punished for it? Yes. But because he sinned, he went and found his wife, Rachel, through whom the Messiah came. Was it alright that he sinned? No. But don't you see? Because Jacob sinned, though God held him responsible for that choice, did that put Jacob an an eternal Plan B? No, God still accomplished His plan for and through Jacob. God worked around the decisions Jacob made and still caused all things to work for good in the end.

God is far greater than our stupid choices.

It says in Acts 2:23, Peter says, "Jesus Christ was handed over to you...and you with wicked hands put him to death." Yet it was all purposed by God. How can that be? How can the wickedness of humanity still result in ultimate good in the long run? This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians: we have a God who is incomparably powerful and able to do these things. He is able to work all things together for you.

This truth liberates us.

For example, if I bought 100% into the first example of thinking, where every outcome in my life including my ultimate spiritual destiny in Christ depended absolutely on every choice I made, I would be too terrified to get out of bed in the morning if I was really thinking through the implications of that belief and mindset. I'd be afraid: which side of the bed should I get out of? If every little move we make works like the butterfly causing the hurricane in chaos math, how could we possibly know what to do at any moment? We'd be paralyzed. I'd be scared to death.

And if I thought it was all fate and no choice of mine really mattered at all, the opposite extreme would happen: I would stop caring completely. If I felt like getting up and burning down the house, why not do that, who cares? What does it matter?

It's fascinating, when you see the successful famous people interviewed, they go one side or the other. Either they say it's because they made the right choices or they say that it was fate and they were just destined for greatness.

Neither of those is a Christian understanding of this topic, and neither of those takes into consideration the incomparable power of God.

Fear gnaws those people. If your success is all because of your great choices then what if you can't keep up the great choices? What if you fail tomorrow and it all ends? On the other hand, if you think it's just fate and pure destiny, you'd be always gnawed with fear because what happens if fate just turns you away.

Is it me that does it or is it just fate?

Neither, it's the incomparable power of God.

That power takes your choices into account, and your choices can indeed affect your life (just as Jacob's bad choices caused sorrow for him) but God and His incomparable power is bent on your joy and benefit and is bigger than your bad decisions and is resourceful enough to work around and through those decisions to still accomplish the good He wants. That still gives us responsibility, but, wow, it gives us a real security--a deep security, peace and trust. It gives us the calmness that Christ had before Pilate and the joy and strength and faith that Paul in his turbulent missionary journeys.

Ephesians 1:22 says it plainly: Christ is head over all things for the church.

As it turns out, that little word "for" is extremely powerful, as we have seen in the points above.

But there's more.

Spiritual Power: God's Power in Us

There's also an internal power. There's another aspect of this headship. It's not only about authority and shaping lives and history. It's also about intimacy with His people, just as the head is attached to the body and has intimate connection to the body.

Some believe the essence of Christianity is cultural--i.e. being American or western or European. But Christianity in its true essence is not an aspect of culture. It's not simply a sociological phenomenon. It can be the heart of any culture. [And, if it really did originate from God and not from humanity as Jesus taught, then it transcends all human cultures and "meta-narratives."]

Some believe the essence of being a Christian is to believe the truth. That's a big part of it, but there's plenty of people who are orthodox in their doctrine all for the wrong reasons. They are Christians because of nostalgia and family tradition.

Some say being a Christian is following the ideals of Christ. That's part of it, but none of these things get at the essence of what it means to be a Christian.

Saying, "A Christian is someone who follows Jesus' example," is like saying, "A doctor is someone who wears a white coat."

The essence of being a Christian is this: you're as connected to Christ as closely as the body is connected to the head. An old Scotsman who wrote a book 200 years ago called "The Life of God in the Soul of Man." That short description is the essence of being a Christian. 

It's the presence, life, and incomparable power of God Himself living inside of you. That's why the Bible uses "born again" language. If we we reborn physically it would mean we would have new blood flowing through our veins. In our spirits, we have new blood and a new heart if we receive Christ.

His incomparable power is inside us.

That is such a life-changing, world-changing truth.

It's why in Ephesians Paul is zealously praying that we would truly know this power deep in the deepest parts of hearts--the areas that changes our identity and actions. If the center of our identity and the core of all our actions rests on this intimate knowledge of His power, nothing in our lives or in the lives of those we're around will ever be the same again.

Let's look at verses 22 and 23 again in Ephesian 1:

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

...the "fullness" of Him...that word in the Greek means the equivalent of the phrase "he's coming into his own" in our modern language, like when an athlete matures and reaches her prime level of performance, and they say "she's coming into her own."

What this is saying is that Jesus is glorified when he is revealed through us. He comes into his own, comes to his fullness, through his people. Parents feel wonderful when their child does something wonderful. It's a strange phenomenon. Parents feel shame when their child does something shameful.

God chooses for it to be this way. 

He chooses to allow Himself to be glorified by your good choices. He also chooses to allow His name to be shamed and made ugly through your bad choices. That is an incredible thing that He would have confidence in His own incomparable power to do something like this. He does this not because we are perfect, sinless creatures (which contradicts what God Himself has taught through the Word), He does this because His incomparable power is still able to work through bad choices.

Yet this is still utterly sobering. He allows your bad choices to make His name ugly to the world if that's what you have chosen to do. It's actually possible to shame your Heavenly Father. To the extent you understand this truth, really know it deep in your heart, and to the extent that you know the Father personally and not just know about Him, you will receive the power to avoid those bad choices when you're faced with them. [Yet he is not saying that the absolute outcome relies 100% on you and your choices. God's incomparable power is still bigger than our bad decisions.]

Don't Be Passive About the Power of God

Knowing the power of God comes also in the doing.

Don't just wait to feel the power of God, in other words. Step out toward good works and act on that knowledge of God's power. The power comes in the doing and obeying by faith, not by passively waiting for some mystical mood of faith to surge through you and catapult you into His plan.

And the source of all of it is faith in Jesus alone. It's just a simple heart gesture of faith. We don't need to wait until we've accumulating enough spiritual brownie points or good deeds. Paul makes it clear: this incomparable power of God is for those who have faith in Jesus. That's all that's required. It's not "faith in Jesus + the sacraments" or "faith in Jesus + a little but of my good works" or "faith in Jesus + seminary."

We're saved by faith in Jesus alone, by His grace, and we also receive His incomparable power in us by faith in Jesus alone, by His grace.

And that is good news.


(This article is a summary of the notes I took of Tim Keller's sermon "Christ Our Head," which he preached on July 9, 1989 in New York City.)