First, we should note here to Whom Paul prays: “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory.” (c.p., John 20:17) Why could Paul pray to God? Because he was praying to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, as the mediator between God and man, made it possible for Paul to offer this prayer. This is important to note, because the main idea of this prayer is the role of Jesus Christ, especially as it provides a foundation for God's plan.
The prayer is a prayer for wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is important for the Christian life. The word “know” in verse 18 can also be translated “see;” coupled with the metaphor about the “eyes of your understanding” we can almost make a picture like this: Paul is saying, don't walk through God's kingdom with your eyes half shut--keep them wide open so you don't miss a thing that God is doing, has done, and is going to do. There is a famous story about five blind men who wanted to learn about an elephant and so, one day, happened to find one. Because they were blind, they couldn't actually see the elephant but they could feel it and so they each came up with a very different interpretation of what an elephant was really like. But their fundamental mistake was this--having once touched an elephant, they felt that was enough for them for the rest of their lives. If they had continued in fellowship and a growing knowledge of the elephant, their faulty knowledge would soon have been corrected. That is what Paul praying for regarding the Ephesians--that they will not be content with their introductory knowledge of God, but come to know and know Him and His plan more fully.
There are three things Paul wants them to know, which correspond to the past, present, and future work of God (NET Bible). In the past, there is God's calling to hope. We have hope in this life, because God has called us and we have answered. In the future, there is the riches of the glory of our inheritance (or our glorious inheritance). (Note the repetition of Paul's favorite phrase “Riches of...”) And in the present there is “The exceeding greatness of [God's] power to us-ward.”
The church is like a great factory, filled with massive machines and devices for the production of God's plan. But all that is useless unless someone can flip the master switch and send power flowing into all those machines, bringing them to life. Without that, they will stand still and silent, unproductive and meaningless. Paul was assuring the Ephesians and encouraging them to remember that there was no danger of that. God never forgets to pay the electric bill for the church, because He owns the power company--or, rather, He is the power company. God has given power to the church--not just barely sufficient power, not to the point where we have to be careful not to exceed the capacity of the generator--it is “the exceeding greatness of his power... according to the work of his mighty power.” Robertson points out that two different words are used in Greek for power in this verse, with a third word (translated “wrought”) in verse 20. It seems that Paul had to use all the words he could think of to try to express the sheer greatness of God's power. (Robertson's Word Pictures, Ephesians 1:20)
But Paul uses more than word play to make his point. He gives a brutally concrete example of the power of God, an example which should help us see exactly what is the power at work within the church. Perhaps we can best express it in the form of an algebraic equation:
(John 19:30-34) + X = (Revelation 1:14-16)
Solve for X
Here we have two passages, both from the writings of John the son of Zebedee--two different things he saw. On one hand, we have this passage from his gospel: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.” That was one sight which John had of his master, a lifeless, bloody corpse being manhandled by careless Roman soldiers.
And then we have this other sight of his Master which John also had years later in his revelation: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.”
There is a vast difference between these two passages, between these two appearances of Jesus. And when we have taken the measure of that difference, we will know what is the extent of the power of God. And this is the power which is at work within the church, within us as Christians. It was the power which not just imparted old life to a dead body (great as that would be) but which imparted a new and more glorious life, and then exalted it. Though Paul in verse 20 and through the end of the chapter changes his focus to the exaltation of Christ itself, it all based on this--the power of God at work in Christ which is the same power at work in us. Chapter 2 talks about how we are raised from the death of our sins to sit with Christ in heavenly places--but this is possible only because of the power which God “wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places.”
The theme of these final verses is the Exaltation of Christ. Paul describes Christ as seated at the right hand of God (a figure used throughout the New Testament)--this has the idea of having honor and authority. Verse 21 states that Jesus is above, and “far above” every kind of being in this age and in the coming age. Paul uses a variety of terms (“these terms describe every order of intelligent beings in heaven and on earth; every creature that bears a name.” Family Bible Notes, Ephesians 1:21) but the bottom line is that Jesus above them all. (Bengel put it: “We know that the emperor goes before all, though we cannot enumerate all the satraps and ministers of his court; so we know that Christ is set above all, although we cannot name them all.") The picture is continued in verse 22 which states that God put all things under Jesus's feet, which again reiterates His supremacy and exaltation.
But at the end of verse 21, Paul changes direction and adds what seems at first a strange addition: God gave Jesus to the church as a head over all things; and as Jesus is the head of the church, so the church is the body of Jesus, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” There's a good deal of controversy or just confusion about what some of the phrases in these verses mean, but the point to notice is this: as part of Christ's exaltation, God gave Him to the church as its head. The basis of the church is the exaltation of Christ. We're not going to spend time here because Paul goes into more detail about this later in the book, but we need to grasp this: this is the foundation of the church, the power of God and the exaltation of Christ. The power at work in the church is the omnipotent power which created the world and raised Christ from the dead, and the head of the church is He who is also exalted over all things.
There was a Henry Aldridch program in which Henry's father was trying to lead a bond drive to raise support for the war effort (during WWII). He was have trouble getting people to make the effort to get involved--until an accidental miscommunication started the rumor that the President of the United States had taken a personal interest in the success of this project. Once that rumor got around, suddenly everyone was willing to get involved. And in the work of the church we have, not the president of a country, but one who is exalted over all things in this world and world to come not just involved but as the head of the project. When God set out to create the church, he looked through all reality and then chose Him whom He had exalted over all things and “gave him to be the head over all things to the church.”