and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, (3:17b–19a)
Being made strong inwardly by God’s Spirit leads to Christ’s being at home in our hearts, which leads to love that is incomprehensible. The result of our yielding to the Spirit’s power and submitting to Christ’s lordship in our hearts is love. When Christ settles down in our lives He begins to display His own love in us and through us. When He freely indwell-s our hearts, we become rooted and grounded in love, that is, settled on a strong foundation of love.
“A new commandment I give to you,”Jesus said, “that you love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Peter wrote, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22). It is God’s supreme desire that His children sincerely and fully love each other, just as He loves us. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit, of which joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self–control are essentially subcategories (Gal. 5:22–23).
Love is an attitude of selflessness. Biblical agapē love is a matter of the will and not a matter of feeling or emotion, though deep feelings and emotions almost always accompany love. God’s loving the world was not a matter simply of feeling; it resulted in His sending His only Son to redeem the world (John 3:16). Love is self-less giving, always self-less and always giving. It is the very nature and substance of love to deny self and to give to others. Jesus did not say, “Greater love has no one than to have warm feelings for his friends,” but rather, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
In obeying the Father’s loving will to redeem the world,Jesus willingly and lovingly gave Himself to accomplish that redemption. “Although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond–servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8). That is love in its most perfect form, and it is this divine attitude of self–sacrificing love that every believer should have in himself (v. 5).
We can only have such love when Christ is free to work His own love through us. We cannot fulfill any of Christ’s commands without Christ Himself, least of all His command to love. We can only love as Christ loves when He has free reign in our hearts. “By this,”John says, “the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has beheld God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. … We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:9–12, 19).
When the Spirit empowers our lives and Christ is obeyed as the Lord of our hearts, our sins and weaknesses are dealt with and we find ourselves wanting to serve others, wanting to sacrifice for them and serve them—because Christ’s loving nature has truly become our own. Loving is the supernatural attitude of the Christian, because love is the nature of Christ. When a Christian does not love he has to do so intentionally and with effort—just as he must do to hold his breath. To become habitually unloving he must habitually resist Christ as the Lord of his heart. To continue the analogy to breathing, when Christ has his proper place in our hearts, we do not have to be told to love—just as we do not have to be told to breathe. Eventually it must happen, because loving is as natural to the spiritual person as breathing is to the natural person.
Though it is unnatural for the Christian to be unloving, it is still possible to be disobedient in regard to love. Just as loving is determined by the will and not by circumstances or other people, so is not loving. If a husband fails in his love for his wife, or she for him, it is never because of the other person, regardless of what the other person may have done. You do not fall either into or out of agapē love, because it is controlled by the will. Romantic love can be beautiful and meaningful, and we find many favorable accounts of it in Scripture. But it is agapē love that God commands husbands and wives to have for each other (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33; Titus 2:4)—the love that each person controls by his own act of will. Strained relations between husbands and wives, between fellow workers, between brothers and sisters, or between any others is never a matter of incompatibility or personality conflict but is always a matter of sin.
The principle applies to everyone with whom the Christian has contact, especially his fellow Christians. Loving others is an act of obedience, and not loving them is an act of disobedience. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:20–21). In the deepest sense, love is the only commandment of God. ‘The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–39). And “he who loves his neighbor,” Paul said, “has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8–10).
The absence of love is the presence of sin. The absence of love has nothing at all to do with what is happening to us, but everything to do with what is happening in us. Sin and love are enemies, because sin and God are enemies. They cannot coexist. Where one is, the other is not. The loveless life is the ungodly life; and the godly life is the serving, caring, tenderhearted, affectionate, self–giving, self–sacrificing life of Christ’s love working through the believer.
When we are rooted and grounded in love, we then become able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of love. We cannot comprehend the fulness of love unless we are totally immersed in love, unless it is the very root and ground of our being. When someone asked the famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong to explain jazz, he replied, “Man, if I’ve got to explain it, you ain’t got it.” In some ways that simplistic idea applies to love. It cannot truly be understood and comprehended until it is experienced. Yet the experience and working of love that Paul is talking about in this passage is not emotional or subjective. It is not nice feelings or warm sentiments that bring such comprehension, but the actual working of God’s Spirit and God’s Son in our lives to produce a love that is pure and sincere, self-less and serving. To be rooted and grounded in love requires being rooted and grounded in God. When we are saved, God’s love is “poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It is the Lord Himself who directs our “hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess. 3:5).
Love is available to every Christian because Christ is available to every Christian. Paul prays that we will become able to comprehend with all the saints. Love is not simply for the even–tempered Christian or the naturally pleasant and agreeable Christian. Nor is it for some supposed special class of Christians who have an inside spiritual track. It is for, and commanded of, every Christian—all the saints.
Comprehension of love comes from being continually immersed in the things of God, especially His Word. “Thy words were found and I ate them,” Jeremiah declared, “and Thy words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by Thy name, O Lord God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16). Job testified, “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12), and the psalmist tells us that the delight of the righteous person “is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2; cf. 19:9b–10; 119:167; etc.).
To comprehend … what is the breadth and length and height and depth of love is to understand it in its fullness. Love goes in every direction and to the greatest distance. It goes wherever it is needed for as long as it is needed. The early church Father Jerome said that the love of Christ reaches up to the holy angels and down to those in hell. Its length covers the men on the upward way and its breadth reaches those drifting away on evil paths.
I do not think that breadth and length and height and depth represent four specific types or categories of love but simply suggest its vastness and completeness. In whatever spiritual direction we look we can see God’s love. We can see love’s breadth reflected in God’s acceptance of Gentile and Jew equally in Christ (Eph. 2:11–18). We can see love’s length in God’s choosing us before the foundation of the world (1:4–5) for a salvation that will last through all eternity. We can see love’s height in God’s having “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (1:3) and in His raising us up and seating us “with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (2:6). We can see love’s depth in God’s reaching down to the lowest levels of depravity to redeem those who are dead in trespasses and sins (2:1–3). God’s love can reach any person in any sin, and it stretches from eternity past to eternity future. It takes us into the very presence of God and sits us on His throne.
In what may at first seems a self–contradiction, Paul says that to know the love of Christ … surpasses knowledge. Knowing Christ’s love takes us beyond human knowledge, because it is from an infinitely higher source. Paul is not speaking here of our knowing the love we are to have for Christ but the love of Christ, His very own love that He must place in our hearts before we can love Him or anyone else. We are commanded to love because we are given love. God always gives before He commands anything in return, and love is one of Christ’s greatest gifts to His church. Throughout John 14–16 Jesus promises to give love, joy, peace, power, and comfort without measure to those who belong to Him.
The world cannot comprehend the great love that Christ gives because it cannot understand Christ. Worldly love is based on attraction and therefore lasts only as long as the attraction. Christ’s love is based on His own nature and therefore lasts forever. Worldly love lasts until it is offended or rebuffed. Christ’s love lasts despite every offense and every rebuff. Worldly love loves for what it can get. Christ’s love loves for what it can give. What is incomprehensible to the world is to be normal living for the child of God.
that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God. (3:19b)
The inner strengthening of the Holy Spirit leads to the indwelling of Christ, which leads to abundant love, which leads to God’s fullness in us. To be filled up to all the fulness of God is indeed incomprehensible, even to God’s own children. It is incredible and indescribable. There is no way, this side of heaven, we can fathom that truth. We can only believe it and praise God for it.
J. Wilbur Chapman often told of the testimony given by a certain man in one of his meetings:
I got off at the Pennsylvania depot as a tramp, and for a year I begged on the streets for a living. One day I touched a man on the shoulder and said, “Hey, mister, can you give me a dime?” As soon as I saw his face I was shocked to see that it was my own father. I said, “Father, Father, do you know me?” Throwing his arms around me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Oh my son, at last I’ve found you! I’ve found you. You want a dime? Everything I have is yours.” Think of it. I was a tramp. I stood begging my own father for ten cents, when for 18 years he had been looking for me to give me all that he had.
That is a small picture of what God wants to do for His children. His supreme goal in bringing us to Himself is to make us like Himself by filling us with Himself, with all that He is and has.
Even to begin to grasp the magnitude of that truth, we must think of every attribute and every characteristic of God. We must think of His power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy, patience, kindness, longsuffering, and every other thing that God is and does. That Paul is not exaggerating is clear from the fact that in this letter he repeatedly mentions the fullness of God’s blessings to those who belong to Him through Christ. He tells us that the church is Christ’s “body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). He tells us that “He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (4:10). And he tells us that God wants every believer to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18).
Plēroō means to make full, or fill to the full, and is used many times in the New Testament. It speaks of total dominance. A person filled with rage is totally dominated by hatred. A person filled with happiness is totally dominated by joy. To be filled up to all the fulness of God therefore means to be totally dominated by Him, with nothing left of self or any part of the old man. By definition, then, to be filled with God is to be emptied of self. It is not to have much of God and little of self, but all of God and none of self. This is a recurring theme in Ephesians. Here Paul talks about the fulness of God; in 4:13 it is “the fulness of Christ”; and in 5:18 it is the fulness of the Spirit.
What a God, who loves us so much that He will not rest until we are completely like Him! We can only sing with David, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; my Savior” (2 Sam. 22:2–3). Throughout the rest of that magnificent hymn, David stacks praise upon praise in declaring God’s greatness and goodness.
In the same way Job seems to be almost at a loss for words to properly extol the wonders of God. “What a help you are to the weak! How you have saved the arm without strength! What counsel you have given to one without wisdom! What helpful insight you have abundantly provided! … He stretches out the north over empty space, and hangs the earth on nothing. He wraps up the waters in His clouds; and the cloud does not burst under them. … The pillars of heaven tremble, and are amazed at His rebuke. … By His breath the heavens are cleared; His hand has pierced the fleeing serpent. Behold, these are the fringes of His ways” (Job 26:2–3, 7–8, 11, 13–14).
From our human, earthly perspective we can never see more than “the fringes of His ways.” No wonder David said that he would not be satisfied until he awoke in the likeness of God (Ps. 17:15). Only then will we know fully as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).
17b–19a. in order that you. being rooted and founded in love, may be strong, together with all the saints, to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Since faith works through love, and amounts to nothing without it (1 Cor. 13:2), it is easy to see that if by faith Christ has established his abiding presence in the heart, believers will be firmly rooted and founded in love, a love for God in Christ, for the brothers and sisters in the Lord, for the neighbors, even for enemies. Moreover, this love, in turn, is necessary in order to comprehend Christ’s love for those who love him. And in the measure in which the believers’ vision of that love which proceeds from Christ expands, their love for him and their ability to grasp his love for them will also increase, etc. Thus the most powerful and blessed chain-reaction in the whole universe is established. It all began with God’s love in Christ for the Ephesians (1:4, 5; 1 John 4:19). Like a continuing circle it will never end.
The words “rooted and founded” suggest a twofold metaphor: that of a tree and that of a building. To insure the stability of the tree roots are required, roots that will be in proportion to the spread of the branches. Similarly, as a guarantee for the solidity of a building a foundation is necessary, one that will adequately support the superstructure. Thus firmly rooted the tree, which represents all those who love the Lord, will flourish and bear the indicated fruit. Thus solidly founded the building will continue to grow into a holy sanctuary in the Lord, and will achieve its purpose.
That fruit and purpose is “to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ.” Since such grasping or appropriating and knowing can be practised only by those who are rooted and founded in love, it is clear that the reference is not to an activity that is purely mental. It is experiential knowledge, heart-knowledge, which Paul has in mind. And since the heart is the very core and center of life and influences all of life’s inner activities and outward expressions, what is indicated is a grasping and a knowing with one’s entire being, that is, with all the “faculties” of heart and mind. Mental appropriation is certainly included.
It should not be necessary to point out that when the apostle speaks of being strong (exercising great inherent strength; see on 1:19) to grasp … and to know, he does not have two objects in mind but one, namely, the love of Christ. So great is that love that no one will ever be able to appropriate and to know it all by himself alone; hence, “together with all the saints.” The saints will tell each other about their discoveries and experiences with respect to it, in the spirit of Ps. 66:16, “Come and hear, all you that fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul.” This activity of getting to know more and more about the love of Christ begins here on earth and will, of course, continue in the life hereafter. The fact that Paul in this very prayer is not forgetting about the church in heaven is clear from verse 14. The Lofty Ideal is to get to know thoroughly Christ’s deep affection, self-sacrificing tenderness, passionate sympathy, and marvelous outgoingness. All of these are included in love but do not exhaust it. Paul prays that the addressed may appropriate and know this love in all its breadth and length and height and depth! Here, as I see it, the expositor should be on his guard. He should not pluck this expression apart, so that a separate meaning is ascribed to each of these dimensions. What is meant is simply this: Paul prays that the Ephesians (and all believers down through the centuries) may be so earnest and zealous in the pursuit of their objective that they will never get to the point where they will say, “We have arrived. Now we know all there is to know about the love of Christ.” Just as Abraham was told to look toward heaven and number the stars, so that he might see that numbering them was impossible; and just as we today are being urged by means of a hymn to count our many blessings, and to name them one by one, so that their uncountable multitude may increase our gratitude and astonishment, so also the apostle prays that the addressed may concentrate so intensely and exhaustively on the immensity and glory of Christ’s love that they will come to understand that this love ever surpasses knowledge. The finite heart and mind can never fully grasp or know infinite love. Even in the life hereafter God will never say to his redeemed, “Now I have told you all there is to be told about this love. I close the book, for the last page has been read.” There will always be more and more and still more to tell. And that will be the blessedness of the heavenly life.
This introduces us to the climax. We now reach the top of the ladder: 19b. in order that you may be filled to all the fulness of God. See also on 4:13. In other words, the knowledge just described is transforming in character: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). To contemplate the glory of Christ’s love means to be increasingly transformed into that image. In one sense that process of transformation will cease at the moment of death. At the very moment when the soul of the believer enters heaven, a great change will take place, and he, who a moment before was still a sinner, a saved sinner, will be a sinner no more, but will behold God’s face in righteousness. He will then be absolutely perfect, completely sinless, in every respect obedient to the Father’s will (Matt. 6:10; Rev. 21:27). For “all the saints” it will cease, in the sense indicated, at Christ’s return. In another sense, however, the transformation-process will not cease: growth in such things as knowledge, love, joy, etc., will continue throughout eternity. Such growth is not inconsistent with perfection. Even in the hereafter believers will still be creatures; hence, finite. Man never becomes God. God, however, ever remains infinite. Now when in glory, in a condition of total absence of sin and death, finite individuals are in continuous contact with the Infinite, is it even possible that the finite would not make progress in the matters that have been mentioned? When “the fulness of God”—all of those divine communicable attributes of which God is full: love, wisdom, knowledge, blessedness, etc.—is, as it were, poured into vessels of limited capacity, will not their capacity be increased? To be sure, believers will never be filled with the fulness of God in the sense that they would become God. Even the communicable attributes, in the measure in which they exist in God, are incommunicable. But what Paul prays is that those addressed may be filled to all the fulness of God. Perfection, in other words, also in such matters as knowledge, love, blessedness must ever remain the goal; to become more and more like God, the ultimate ideal. What Paul is asking, therefore, with special reference, of course, to the church still on earth, though the answer to the prayer will never cease, is nothing strange, nothing new. It is a request similar to the exhortation of 5:1, “Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a fragrant odor.” And again, “It was he who gave some (to be) apostles … in order to fully equip the saints for the work of ministry … until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the clear knowledge of the Son of God, to a full-grown man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (4:11–13). Cf. Col. 2:9, 10.
18 Now Paul identifies the hoped-for consequence of his request for the indwelling Christ: literally, “so that you may be strong enough to grasp …” Only the indwelling Christ gives believers the strength or capacity to grasp what Paul wants them to know. “Be strong enough” (NIV, “have power”) translates exischysēte (GK 2015), which (used only here in the NT—though common enough in other Greek writings) means “to be fully capable of doing or experiencing something” (BDAG, 350). Paul desires his readers to be completely able to “grasp” (katalabesthai, GK 2898), a word Paul also uses for mental or spiritual comprehension or perception (Ac 4:13; 10:34; 25:25). By using the middle voice, Paul highlights his desire that they “fully understand for themselves,” or grasp the implications in their own interest or for their own benefit.
Next, Paul appends a prepositional phrase: he prays they will have the strength to grasp “with all the saints.” Two interpretive options present themselves: (1) this comprehension is available to all believers (i.e., Paul prays for them what he desires for all Christians), or (2) this comprehension only comes in the context of the community. In view of the pervasive theme of the body, community metaphors, and Paul’s upcoming appeals for unity, the second is more likely. Best, 344, agrees, calling this “a communal knowledge.… The true understanding of Christ’s love is not then an individual experience but takes place in the community.” Plus, the object that Paul wishes them to comprehend is the “love of Christ” (v. 19 in the Greek text; the NIV has brought this forward to v. 18 for ease of translation). Not only must love work itself out only in the context of the body; it can only be understood there. Love cannot be grasped in isolation from other members of the body of Christ.
As to the object he wants them to have the power to grasp, Paul uses four terms to delimit the dimensions of something, though in fact he specifies no object. These nouns typically describe physical dimensions. “Width” (platos) is used for the “breadth” of the earth (Rev 20:9) or the “width” of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:16). “Length” (mēkos) likewise measures the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:16). “Height” (hypsos) measures that city too (Rev 21:16), but also stands in place of “heaven” (“on high”; Lk 24:49; Eph 4:8). “Depth” (bathos) is used literally (Lk 5:4) and metaphorically (Ro 8:39; 11:33). Simply taking them without an object might imply that Paul intends them to encompass all reality (cf. Yoder Neufeld, 161). From the context, however, it seems evident that he wishes the readers to grasp what is the width, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love (see NIV and most versions and commentators). He wants to convey a feeling of the vastness of Christ’s love and the impossibility of comprehending its extent—though, of course, he prays for precisely this very thing! He wants them to pursue within the church avenues for the extending of Christ’s love in every dimension of their common life.
19 Paul identifies explicitly the object they need strength to grasp: the love of Christ (see end of v. 18 in the NIV). Literally, Paul says, “indeed [emphatic use of te], to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” another clause that strains logic. We sense that Paul is laboring with his lexicon here, trying to express what he finds almost beyond expression. Snodgrass, 182, remarks appropriately, “This is language from someone who has been surprised and overwhelmed with Christ’s love.” Paul prays for more than a mere awareness of Christ’s love; he wants them to really know (ginōskō, GK 1182) it. This is personal and experiential knowledge, not merely intellectual speculation. The object for them to know is the love “of Christ.” I take “of Christ” as a subjective genitive, specifying Christ’s love for them. Rereading v. 18, we see how vast and immeasurable Christ’s love really is. That is what Paul wants them to know.
Paradoxically, however, such love “surpasses knowledge”! It cannot be understood completely. How can one possibly fathom the extent of Christ’s love (we are reminded of v. 8 and the “unsearchable riches of Christ”)? Paul petitions God to grant them increased understanding and experience of Christ’s love, though its full attainment will always elude them. And though believers will never exhaust its vastness, Christ’s love forms the substance in which they are rooted and established. The implication for the readers, then, is that they are to grow in and build on Christ’s love in their relationships with one another. In this practical and tangible way, Christians come to know experientially more and more what Christ’s love for them really means and entails.
A final purpose clause concludes the verse, introduced by the conjunction “that” (hina). This clause, still part of the sentence that began in v. 14, attaches to the main verb “bow” or “kneel”; therefore, many see this as the third major request of Paul’s prayer. Alternatively, Paul sums up the ultimate goal of his prayer for his readers (so Arnold, 86, 96–97; O’Brien, 253, 365). He desires that they “be filled to … all the fullness of God.” Yet it seems to be an impossible goal (the preposition eis pointing to a goal); has Paul strained the language beyond all boundaries? Has he lost control of his argument? Are his readers to be perfect as God is, or as much as humans can attain to divine perfection; does Paul’s desire perhaps parallel Peter’s statement, “so that … you may participate in the divine nature” (2 Pe 1:4)? Or are they to be filled with God—hence Phillips’ translation: “So you will be filled through all your being with God himself”?
Again, we must take it bit by bit. The verb plēroō (“filled”) here takes the meaning “to make full” (as in 1:23; 4:10, and many other places; cf. BDAG, 828). One can be full of joy or knowledge or other qualities. Here the preposition eis points to the goal, direction, or extent to which they are to be filled: eis pan to plērōma tou theou (to all the fullness of God; NIV, “to the measure of all the fullness of God”). I noted an active and passive sense for the noun “fullness” (plērōma, GK 4445) in the commentary on 1:23. But as Best, 348, notes, “The distinction between the active and passive meanings of plērōma may be unimportant in this respect, for God will fill with that with which he is full.” Paul appends the particle pan, which means “all,” thus resulting in “all that which is filled.” Paul prays that they be filled to (eis) all the fullness “of God.” Paul envisions their movement toward the goal of God’s fullness. Its final realization will not arrive until the eschaton.
How, then, do we understand the genitival phrase “the fullness of God” (tou theou)? What uses of the genitive might fit here? (1) If the genitive is epexegetic, then fullness equals God, and they are to be filled with the fullness, namely, God. But what might it mean to be filled with God, as this image has no parallel in other places in the NT? (2) If possessive, then the fullness belongs to God. (3) If subjective, then the fullness is effected by God; God fills them. This might be very similar to a genitive of origin—the fullness that comes from God.
It seems the options boil down to two main choices. To be filled with the fullness could mean (1) to be filled with God, or (2) to be filled toward some quality (or qualities) that comes from God, which he possesses and which he supplies. The second makes more sense in this context in which Paul prays for the readers’ apprehension of the unsurpassable love of Christ. Can we specify what Paul intends “fullness” to include here? Either it comprises certain unspecified divine qualities and attributes, or Paul has in mind some specific entity. A popular option simply leaves “fullness” here: it refers to divine perfections, divine fullness—insofar as Christians indwelt by the Spirit can attain it.
However, taking with some hesitation the sense of “fullness” as “that which is full of something” (BDAG, 829 ), I tender an alternative. I propose on contextual grounds that this “fullness” of God zeroes in on one divine attribute, namely, the love of God that he exercises himself and grants to his people in Christ. Paul wants his readers to grow more and more in their experience of God’s love in their relationships with each other to the extent that they have experienced God’s love for them. Jesus urged his disciples to be perfect as God is perfect (Mt 5:48). No sinless perfection this, but the goal of kingdom living that only the Spirit can enable. Likewise here, Paul could not expect his readers to love as God does—or to be filled with all those qualities that fill up God, for that matter. But the goal (the preposition eis) is to live and love as God does. Paul says as much later in this letter: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1–2). Here are all the components: the sacrificial love of God, the love that God has for his children, and the appeal to imitate this divine love by living a life of love.
3:18 The preceding requests have outlined a program of spiritual growth and development which prepares the child of God to be fully able to grasp with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height.
Before we consider the dimensions themselves, let us notice the expression, with all the saints. The subject is so great that no one believer can possibly grasp more than a small fraction of it. So there is need to study, discuss, and share with others. The Holy Spirit can use the combined meditations of a group of exercised believers to throw a flood of additional light on the Scriptures.
The dimensions are generally taken to refer to the love of Christ, although the text does not say this. In fact, the love of Christ is mentioned separately in the following clause. If the love of Christ is intended, then the connection might be shown as follows:
|The world (John 3:16)
|Forever (1 Cor. 13:8)
|Even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8)
|Heaven (1 John 3:1–2)
- B. Meyer expresses it well:
There will always be as much horizon before us as behind us. And when we have been gazing on the face of Jesus for millenniums, its beauty will be as fresh and fascinating and fathomless as when we first saw it from the gate of Paradise.
But these dimensions may also refer to the mystery which holds such an important place in Ephesians. In fact, it is easy to find these dimensions in the text itself:
- The width is described in 2:11–18. It refers to the wideness of God’s grace in saving Jews and Gentiles, and then incorporating them into the church. The mystery embraces both these segments of humanity.
- The length extends from eternity to eternity. As to the past, believers were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (1:4). As to the future, eternity will be a perpetual unfolding of the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus (2:7).
- The depth is vividly portrayed in 2:1–3. We were sunk in a pit of unspeakable sin and degradation. Christ came to this jungle of filth and corruption in order to die in our behalf.
- The height is seen in 2:6, where we have not only been raised up with Christ, but enthroned in Him in the heavenlies to share His glory.
These are the dimensions, then, of immensity and, indeed, infinity. As we think of them, “all we can do,” Scroggie says, “is to mark the order in this tumult of holy words.”
3:19 The apostle’s next request is that the saints might know by experience the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ. They could never explore it fully, because it is an ocean without shores, but they could learn more and more about it from day to day. And so he prays for a deep, experimental knowledge and enjoyment of the wonderful love of our wonderful Lord.
The climax in this magnificent prayer is reached when Paul prays that you may be filled with (lit. unto, Gk. eis) all the fullness of God. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in the Lord Jesus (Col. 2:9). The more He dwells in our hearts by faith, the more we are filled unto all the fullness of God. We could never be filled with all the fullness of God. But it is a goal toward which we move.
And yet having explained this, we must say there are depths of meaning here we have not reached. As we handle the Scriptures, we are aware that we are dealing with truths that are greater than our ability to understand or explain. We can use illustrations to throw light on this verse, for example, the thimble dipped in the ocean is filled with water, but how little of the ocean is in the thimble! Yet when we have said all this, the mystery remains, and we can only stand in awe at God’s word and marvel at its infinity.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 107–112). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Ephesians (Vol. 7, pp. 172–174). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 99–101). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1930–1931). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.