Chapter One: Paul's Prayer for the Church in Ephesians Three
This is the first chapter of my new book, The Greatness of the Love of Christ. I can think of no better theme about which to write than the theme of this book, and I am more excited about it than anything else I have written before. I hope God will use it to strengthen the faith and increase the joy of many of his saints. For the next few months, I plan to post chapters periodically.
1. An Explanation of the Prayer
At the beginning of the third chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul begins to formulate an intercessory prayer for the church in Ephesus, upon the basis of the rich truths of the gospel which he had just been revealing to them in the first two chapters; but before he is able to express his prayer, he is drawn aside again to the greatness of the gospel mystery, and exults in the message which he has been entrusted with bringing to the Gentiles. This message is the gospel of the unsearchable riches of Christ, which in their depths and expansiveness had been hidden from the previous ages, but were finally being made known to all the world, viz., how all the nations of men, according to God's eternal purpose, were now being brought in to become full heirs of all the promises made to the saints, and how they had even more direct access to God the Father, and boldness to approach him such as even Abraham and Moses and other great men of God had never known. It is Paul's joy and passion to proclaim so great a gospel to every creature under heaven, not just so that many sinful men could come to know the free grace and boundless goodness of God, but so that, through this Church of redeemed sinners, the infinite and manifold wisdom of God might be displayed even before the highest angels and authorities in all creation.
Accordingly, Paul then picks up his prayer in verse fourteen, after he had left it for thirteen verses, and offers up a beautiful intercession for the saints, the pinnacle and capstone of which is the request that these believers might know with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the all-surpassing love of Christ, and that they might be filled with all the fullness of God. In a brilliant gospel paradox, this most impossible of things with men becomes possible with God, whose power to do good for us is above all that we could ask or think; and so we are strengthened to know that which surpasses knowledge, and to be filled with all the divine fullness that far transcends our finite boundaries. In this way, the redemptive love of Christ shines through the Church with an eternal brilliance, thus consummating God's plan of the ages to display his great glory in Christ by the Church.
Although Paul's intercessory prayer is complex, and contains many nuances and particular purposes, the structure in the original Greek clearly divides it into three basic components, each introduced by the particle â€œhinaâ€. The first of these components is the request that God might grant the believers to be strengthened in their inner man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that Christ might dwell in their hearts by faith and they might be rooted in love. This is the basic essence of the gospel, namely, union with Christ, which is effected by the Spirit, through faith, unto love; and in which the Church is founded upon Christ as a foundation and rooted in him as the ground of their salvation. The second component is the request that these believers might be strengthened to know the infinite boundaries of the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge; this is the subjective embrace or experiential realization of that essential nature of the gospel, which is the union of the Church with Christ. The third component is the request that these believers might be filled with all the fullness of God, which is the objective fruit of the gospel-essence of union with Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of the godhead bodily (Col. 2:9-10). At the beginning of this threefold petition, Paul expresses that its accomplishment would be â€œaccording to the riches of [God's] gloryâ€; and afterwards, he concludes with a doxology that God so doing according to Paul's prayer, in a display of power beyond all comprehension, would bring to himself eternal glory in Christ and in the Church, who is the object of the love of Christ.
Thus, we may understand that Paul would see the Ephesian believers showered with the unspeakably great and eternal riches of the gospel: its essence of union with Christ, its subjective fruit of knowing the unknowable depths of his love, and its objective fruit of being filled with the fullness of God, Christ first joining his illimitable divine nature to a truly human nature, and then joining us to himself in that human nature, so that, as he dwells in us, we are filled with all the fullness of the godhead, which took bodily form in Christ. This petition, which is great gospel riches for the Church, all redounds to the eternal glory of God in Christ Jesus.
2. Why it is the Knowledge of the Love of Christ in Particular for which Paul Prays
Now, it is at once manifest that the free bestowal of this gospel gift is a product of God the Father's and God the Holy Spirit's love for the Church, no less than Christ's love; for Paul is praying to the Father specifically to grant this gift to the Church, which is an inexpressibly great token of his love, that he would freely give her his own beloved Son; and he likewise prays that this union between Christ and the Church would be effected by the ministry of the Spirit, which he would never agree to do unless he himself loved her greatly. And yet, Paul speaks especially of the love of Christ as that love which it most especially behooves the saints to know, and which most particularly brings glory to God.
This is because, in pursuit of the great gift of the gospel, Christ took on human flesh so that he might reveal God to his people perfectly and finally; and hence the essential love of the whole godhead is revealed to human hearts particularly by the love of Christ. He is the consummative Word of God, by whom the Father spoke once and for all at the end of the ages, through whom he revealed the essence of his divine nature, and who is the very radiance of his glory (Heb. 1:1-4). He dwelt from eternity in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18), he was with God and indeed was God (John 1:1-3), and when he came down for our salvation, he became our life and light by taking on human flesh and dwelling among us, so that we might look upon the glory of God and not be consumed (John 1:4-5; 14). So then, Christ undertook to accomplish our salvation by revealing to us who God truly is, and by bringing us back to him (1 Pet. 3:18).
Christ alone reveals the godhead to mankind, because he alone is both God and man, able at once to display the divine glory, as he is divine; and also to display that divine glory to human subjects, as he became human, and stamped the features of humanity with the glory of God. Thus, he showed his closest disciples just a glimpse of his divine glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, and they saw God and lived (Mat. 17:1-8; 2 Pet. 1:16-18). So also Jesus told Philip, just before he left, â€œHe who has seen me has seen the Father; how do you say, 'Show us the Father?'â€ (John 14:9). So then, in the gospel, Christ displays the nature of the eternal godhead in human form, so that his people, who have eyes of faith, can look upon God, whom no man has ever seen (1 Tim. 6:16), and still live.
Before Christ took on human flesh, no man could see God and live. This is what the Lord told even Moses, the greatest of the prophets before the Christ (Ex. 33:20). And this was known instinctively by all the saints before Christ's coming, from the time of Adam, who hid himself in the Garden when he had sinned (Gen. 3:8-10). Ever afterwards, all of God's people trembled when they glimpsed God, and thought to die, and only consoled themselves by thinking of the Angel of the Covenant, who condescended to mediate the fierceness of the glory of God to them. Thus Jacob, when he recognized that he had seen God face-to-face at Peniel, marveled that he was still alive, and gave glory to the man who had wrestled with him, bringing to him the presence of God in human form (Gen. 32:24-32). On his deathbed, he recognized that this Angel was the Lord who was merciful to him all his days, and who gave him the sight of God even while preserving his life (Gen. 48:15-16). Of course, this was the Christ, who even then began to mediate the beatific sight of God to his people, in such form that they could see him and live.
Then, in Deuteronomy 5:24, the people marveled that they had heard the very word of God and were still alive, and they attributed their preservation to a mediator, who was at that time, in type and foreshadow, Moses; but in recognizing their need of a Mediator, they looked ahead to Christ, who is the very Word of God, and speaks to his people all the will of God, but yet in such a manner that they might still live. Then Gideon and Manoah, the father of Sampson, both fear that they must surely die when they see the Lord face-to-face, but are comforted only in that God has revealed himself in his Angel, and so they are able still to live (Judg. 6:22; 13:22). And also Isaiah cries out that he is undone when he sees the Lord Christ sitting upon his throne (Isa. 6:1-6; Jn. 12:41); but he derives comfort from the application of a coal from the altar to his lips, which signifies the application of the results of Christ's redemptive work on the cross.
Thus it is only Christ who can reveal God to sinful man, in such a way that he might see him and live; but what is the nature of this God whom he is revealing? As he told Moses, his name is â€œThe LORD: I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy upon whom I will show mercyâ€ (Ex. 33:19). God's character is manifold in its glorious excellencies, but the greatest revelation of himself shows him to be a God of love: his love is so great that even his perfect righteousness, unstained holiness, immense wrath against sinners, and other such attributes, cannot finally stand in the way of his free and gracious reconciling of rebellious sinners to himself. He has determined, and his love will accomplish it, that he will be both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:26). He will cause mercy to spring up and kiss righteousness, so that his love and faithfulness to his gracious promises prevail at last (Psalm 85:10).
So great and wonderful is the love of God for sinners, that he allows it to be said of himself, in such manner as it is not said of any other attribute, that â€œGod is loveâ€ (1 John 4:8). Thus, the perfect display of the love of God must show forth all the glory of all his diverse and excellent attributes. God's redemptive love for sinners, perfectly pictured on the cross, brings together his justice, faithfulness, free mercy, sovereignty, wrath, and many other things, in perfect harmony, so that it may be said of his love, that it contains in itself the infinite expanse of all the divine attributes. The redemptive love of God, therefore, reveals the infinite nature of God; and this self-revelation of God is at one and the same time his great glorification: for when God is seen for who he is, his glory is made known, and he is glorified in the hearts of them who see him. This glorification of God is the very purpose of our redemption (see Isa. 43:6-7, 11; Rom. 9:23; Eph. 1:6, 12, 14; 2:7); and it only happens in the Person and work of Christ, where we meet God.
So then, Christ displays the nature of God; God's nature is love, and his manifold excellencies are all wrapped up in his redemptive love; therefore, Christ perfectly displays the love of God, and this is the eternal glory of God shown among his people. Each Person of the Trinity loves us wonderfully and uniquely; but where that love meets us, where we can see it, recognize it, and rejoice in it, is the love of Christ. When we look upon the love of Christ, we see the revelation of the God who is love.
What this means for us, is that the one great purpose and goal of our lives is to be searching out the love of Christ. We were created to glorify God, and God is glorified when he is seen for who he is. But we can only see God for who he is in Christ, who reveals the nature of the God who is love in his taking on human flesh and loving us therein. We were created to enjoy and delight in God, and we can find no greater delight for all eternity than in carving out ever greater and deeper caverns of delight in the boundless love of Christ for his Church. This delightful labor belongs to all the saints for eternity.
3. The Love of Each Person of the Trinity for the Church
We have seen why it is appropriate for us to meditate most especially on the love of Christ for us: it is in the love of Christ that we first meet a gracious and reconciling God, and it is by his love that we learn more of the love of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. But before we begin to trace out the ever-unfolding contours of the love of Christ, it would be in order to argue in brief that each Person of the holy Trinity loves us, and to show wherein that love consists, and how it is displayed in our lives. The sum of it all is this: God the Father is the ultimate source of the divine love for us; he displays that love in giving us Christ to die for us (Rom. 5:8); and he brings us to an experiential knowledge of it by giving us the Spirit, who pours his love, which was manifested in Christ, into our hearts (Rom. 5:5).
The Love of the Father
The Father loves us from all eternity, and his love is the ultimate source and fountain of our redemption and of every good thing that we have been given. It is the Father in particular who loved us before the world began, and it is because of his love that he chose us, and gave us to the Son, who delighted in us as his portion from the Father, and undertook to redeem us. Thus the apostle says of the Father that he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and that in love he predestined us to be his children (Eph. 1:4-5). Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 1:4, Paul reminds the saints that they were loved and chosen by God, and thus called to him by the gospel; and so also, because he knew them of old, that is, with the intimate and loving knowledge of a man for his wife, he called all the saints, and justified them, and glorified them (Rom. 8:28-30).
This eternal and elective love of God for the saints is true of all the ages; for he loved and chose Abraham alone, out of many idol-worshipers on the other side of the river Euphrates (Josh. 24:2-3); then he loved and chose Israel alone out of many greater nations on the face of the earth (Deut. 4:7; 7:7-8, 13; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3); and these testimonies of God's eternal and unfailing love for his elect people are so pervasive and consistent throughout the scriptures, that we should soon run out of space trying to list them all (see, for example, Jer. 31:3).
Now, the love of the Father for us is nothing less than all his love, and it stops at nothing to bring us what is good. Thus, it may be said of the Father, as also of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that his love for us is so great that there is nothing he loves more, no, not even his eternal beloved Son. In fact, he loves us just as he loves Christ, he loves us as if we were Christ indeed, because he looks at us as if we were in him from all eternity (Eph. 1:4). Thus, Jesus confesses to the Father in his high-priestly prayer, â€œYou have loved them just as you have loved meâ€ (John 17:23).
That this is actually the case may be certainly seen from other scriptures as well. For the love of God for us is pre-eminently the love of a Father for his children. â€œLike a father pities his children, so the LORD pities them who fear himâ€ (Psalm 103:13). In fact, he takes us to be his children in truth: â€œIsrael is my firstborn son,â€ he told Moses to say to the Pharaoh (Ex. 4:22); and it was because God was a Father to Israel that he destroyed Egypt and delivered her from all her troubles. But this is true of us today as well; for his elective love has given us sonship in Christ (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:5-7; Eph. 1:5). â€œBehold, how great the love the Father has given us,â€ the beloved disciple exclaims, â€œthat we should be called the children of God! And we areâ€ (1 John 3:1).
But the love of the Father for Christ Jesus is also a love of him as a Son; and thus he proclaims, â€œThis is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; hear him!â€ (Mat. 17:5; see also Mat. 3:17). So God the Father loves the second Person of the Trinity eternally and perfectly as a Son; and he loves us with the same love of an infinite and gracious Father.
We may also note of the Father's love for us, as of each other Person of the Trinity, that it is a particular and exclusive love. For God loved Israel alone, and rejected many nations (Deut. 7:6); he loved Jacob and hated Esau (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:13); he hates the wicked and is angry with them every day (Psalm 5:5-6; 7:11), but he never fails to love his children (Isaiah 49:15). In all these ways, we can see the greatness of the love of the Father for us, who loves us even as he loves his own Son, and so did not withhold even the Son of his Love from us, but delivered him up for us when we were yet sinners (See Romans 8:29; 5:8). If God could tell Abraham, â€œNow I know that you fear God, in that you have not withheld your only son from meâ€ (Gen. 22:12); then surely we can respond to him, â€œNow I know that you love me, for neither have you withheld your only begotten and altogether beloved Son from me!â€.
The Love of the Son
We will soon examine in much greater detail the manifold love of God the Son for his people, but for now, we will only mention that the Son, too, loves us in particular, as the people whom his beloved Father has chosen and given to him, with even as great a love as he has for his own Father. For he told his disciples in truth, that he has loved us just as the Father loved him (John 15:9); and in saying that, it is manifest that he was showing them the immeasurable greatness of his love, for the Father is the ultimate source of love, and there is no greater love than that of the Father. Jesus, who is one with the Father, loves him with the same love with which he is loved by him, and he loves us too with that same love, so that we are loved by him as greatly as he loves his own eternal Father. And we may see how true that is in his life: for he had the divine nature, and was justly called very God, and as he loved God the Father he delighted in the divine nature which was his; but for love of us, he took on human nature, and consented to bear it forever, thus showing that he loved us poor humans even as he loved the Father, and so consented for all of time to be one of us (see Phil. 2:5-11). And then, he rejoiced in nothing so much as to be with the Father and to delight in his presence; but for love of us, he was willing to be separated from the Father, and on the cross cried out, â€œMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?â€ (Psalm 22:1; Mat. 27:46), which is a cry too hard and painful for mortal hearts to understand, in which pain beyond infinity is wrapped up; but it is a cry he lifted up out of love for us, consenting to the breaking of the triune fellowship, so that we might be brought in to fellowship with him and his Father (John 17:21-23).
And just as the Father's, so the Son's love for us is particular, and he openly disavows all others but intercedes for and offers himself up for us alone, whom the Father has loved and chosen and given to be his portion (John 17:9-10); but we will speak much more of this hereafter.
The Love of the Spirit
We may know as well that the Holy Spirit loves us particularly and greatly, even as he loves the other Persons of the Trinity: for he always rejoiced in the mutual indwelling and interpenetration of the three Persons of the Trinity, and loved to bring glory to the Father and the Son; but he has loved us enough to dwell within us, and to put up with all the remnants of sin and filth that he finds in our hearts, and patiently to teach and to cleanse and sanctify us and to apply the benefits of Christ's redemption to our hearts, out of love for us (John 14:17; Rom. 8:9-11; Gal. 4:6; 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; Eph. 1:13-14; 1 John 2:20, 27). So, he loved the Father and the Son, and eternally dwelt within them; and he loves us in the same way, and has condescended to dwell within us. And in his love for them, he delighted to bring glory to them; but in his love for us, he delights to bring us to glory, that is, to make us into the glorious image of the Son he delights to glorify (e.g 2 Cor. 3:18).
The Holy Spirit also loves us particularly; for he blows wherever he will (John 3:8), and gives new hearts of faith and love to some and not to others; but that those whom he wills to bring to Christ are the same as those whom the Father has loved from eternity and whom the Son has loved and given himself up for is manifest; for he proceeds from the Father and the Son (John 14:16-18; 15:26; 16:7), and cannot work at odds with their purposes.
4. The Breadth and Width and Height and Depth
In Ephesians 3:18, Paul prays that we might â€œbe able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depthâ€ of the love of Christ. In this request, he enjoins upon us the delightful labor of searching out the love of Christ in every direction, of examining it from every angle, and seeking to know it in all its rich and manifold beauty. We may press to the limits of our understanding in every direction, and still find no limit or end to the unfathomable love of Christ. How shall we begin to plummet its depths? Will we find a bottom to it in the deepest sea? No, his love is deeper than that, for it has already cast our sins into the depths of the sea, and the limitless depth of his love has swallowed them all up (Mic. 7:19).
Well, then, what is as deep as death, as low as the grave which consumes all and has no end of greediness (Prov. 27:20; 30:15-16; Hab. 2:5), and from which no one rises again? But the love of Christ is deeper yet, for he went down to death in love for us, he descended into hell, he plumbed the depths of Sheol, he was laid down in the grave; and yet, his love still overcame, and he rose again with life for us all. We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), we were children of death and hell, but even there the right hand of the love of God found us out and delivered us (Ps. 139:8-10). Death was strong, and we were in its grasp, but Christ's love for us was stronger than death (Song of Solomon 8:6-7), and so he went to death for us and conquered, he delivered us from death and gave us eternal life.
But surely nothing can be as deep as the bottomless pit, reserved for Satan and his people (Rev. 20:3); and yet, the love of Christ is deeper yet, for the bottomless pit has no bottom simply because the infinite wrath of God against sinners is there; and Christ took upon himself all that infinite wrath, he drained the bottomless cup to its dregs (Mat. 26:42), and still his love overcame. The waters of the Father's wrath were heaped up fifteen cubits above the highest mountains (cf. Gen. 7:19-20), but those many waters could not quench the love of Christ for his bride (Song of Solomon 8:7). Wrath was deep and bottomless, but the love of Christ was deeper yet, for he has reconciled us to the Father with whom we were enemies (Rom. 5:10; 8:7; Eph. 2:14-16). Tophet was prepared of old both deep and wide, and was set on fire by the breath of the Father's wrath, but the love of Christ quenched the burning fierceness of his anger and swallowed up that flaming pyre in the depths of his mercy (Isa. 30:33). And still we have found no bottom to his love!
But maybe we shall discover its heights; and what is as high as the heavens, which God spread out far above the earth, and in which his glory shines? So high are the heavens and so full of the glory of God that all the stars of dawn and the sons of morning shouted for joy when they were created (Job 38:7). But the love of the Son of God is higher yet, for all the heavens rejoice with inexpressible joy over the conversion of one poor little lost sheep of his love (Luke 15:7, 10), and his love is great enough to save many lost sheep, yes, a whole multitude of them. Then again, our sins and transgressions were heaped up as high as the heavens (Ezra 9:6), but love superabounded and overcame them all, and we are now forgiven. How much higher than the heavens is the love of Christ!
But will we find the breadth of the love of Christ? No, for it is broader than the east is from the west, and even so far has he put away our sins from us (Psalm 103:12). Nor has it any limit of length, for we were in the heart of the Son before time began, our names remained graven upon his heart throughout all the ages of the world, and into the eternity of the future he will never stop loving us, but will delight in the song of his saints and angels, and rejoice in their praise, and accept their offerings of love which his own love has stirred up within them for ever and ever, world without end. How deep and wide and and broad and high is the love of Christ, that we may walk in it any direction and never find an end! Let us then set out and see if we may trace a few themes of the great love of Christ for his people; for no matter how much we may gain, there is always more to discover, there is ever a new and fresh glimpse, and so there will be through the endless ages to come.