That ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.

Ephesians 3:19

Why should a Christian “settle down” as soon as he has come to know the Lord?

I blame faulty exposition of the New Testament for stopping many Christians dead in their tracks, causing them to shrug off any suggestion that there is still spiritual advance and progress beckoning them on.

It is the position of some would-be teachers that everyone who comes into the kingdom of God by faith immediately obtains all there is of God’s spiritual provision.

I believe that such a teaching is as deadly as cyanide to the individual Christian life. It kills all hope of spiritual advance and causes many believers to adopt what I call “the creed of contentment.”

I am sure you agree with me that there is always real joy in the heart of the person who has become a child of God. Sound teaching of the Word will then hold out the goal of moving forward, emulating the Apostle Paul’s desire to become a special kind of Christian!

Lord, there are several areas in my spiritual life in which I would like to move forward. Guide me in this process through Your Word and through Your Church.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

God’s Fullness

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).[4]

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 [2]), 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.[5]

[1] Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1931). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Ephesians (Vol. 7, pp. 173–174). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 111–112). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] 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.


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