To Know the Love of Christ
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Though Christians by definition know the love of Christ, here Paul prays for a deeper knowledge of it, so that we might be filled with the fullness of God for the glory of God.
Ephesians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), Peter T O’Brien
Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Frank Thielman
“Paul’s Prayer”, Sermon by Timothy Keller
We call this week a stand-alone sermon, which means it’s not part of a series of sermons. Next Sunday we have Josh Roulhac here from DC doing another stand-alone, and then in 2 weeks we’ll start a series through the Psalms. But for today, it’s a stand-alone, however I did start thinking about it more in part because of our series on congregational singing. In that series we preached on Ephesians 5, which draws on this passage from Ephesians 3, and just last week we talked about the importance of joy in our singing, which got us into this discussion of affections. Affections are not the same as feelings or emotions, which refer more to the chemicals in our brains, but they do typically affect our feelings or emotions, and we saw last week that knowing God very much affects our affections. This week I just want to look at another passage that shows that, though it does so without directly addressing the affections. Instead, it speaks of a knowledge that is deeper than mere cognition, a knowledge this text says fills us with all the fullness of God. It’s a knowledge that surpasses knowledge, a knowledge we cannot conjure up, work up, or reason to. It’s a knowledge of the love of Christ that comes only through prayer, and this passage is a prayer for just that. From it we learn that you need power from God for the fullness of God to the glory of God. So we’ll look at power from God, the fullness of God, and the glory of God.
Power from God
Our passage today begins with the words “for this reason,” which obviously refer to what came before. In the passages just before this one, Paul had been talking about the work of Christ to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles to God, to create one new humanity in himself, and then how he was commissioned to make known this plan of God, which is made visible in visible churches, where we get a glimpse of this new humanity, united in Christ. For this reason, then, because of what Christ has done, because of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ, and because of his role to make these things known, Paul says he bows his knees before the Father, which means he prays to the Father.
From the simple fact that he prays, rather that simply telling us what to do, we learn that we cannot complete the Father’s plan by our efforts. Verse 14 does not say, “For this reason I work all the more,” but “For this reason I bow my knees.” Already we can see, then, that we need strength from God if his plan is to be accomplished. And it is fitting that Paul would pray to the God the Father, because, verse 16, he is the one from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. Family here probably refers to something larger than the immediate family like a tribe, and each of these is named from God the Father in that God is the creator of every human, he determines the parentage of every human, and the places and times in which those humans live. It makes sense, then, that if the Father’s plan is to unite people from every family on earth, and Paul wants to see that plan accomplished, that he would pray to the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.
Then in verse 16 he reveals the content of his prayer. He prays according to the riches of God’s glory, which indicates that God has the resources necessary to answer this prayer, and this is something to notice throughout the prayer that should also animate our prayers and aspirations: God is infinitely rich in glory. No matter how much he’s given you, he still has more to give. So even though Paul has already recounted in Ephesians how God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, he looks to God and sees that he still has more riches to give! Do you believe that about God? Do you believe he still has more to give you?
The prayer here, then, is that we might be strengthened with power through God’s Spirit in our inner being. God has power to give you, to strengthen you in your inner being. He is omnipotent, infinite in power, the one being who never lacks the power to accomplish that which he sets out to do, the one being who never runs low on energy, the one being who depends on no other beings for his existence or activity. Therefore, out of such riches, he is able to give power to strengthen those with none, and this he does by his Spirit. Notice specifically that the power from God that we need is for our inner being. You can see this emphasis throughout the New Testament prayers. There is an assumption running through them that, as scripture says elsewhere, our outer being is wasting away, while our inner being is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). Therefore, the authors of the New Testament don’t pray that our outer being won’t waste away. That’s like praying that you will never die; it’s futile, because God has revealed that death is part of his good plan for your salvation. Similarly, part of God’s good plan for us is suffering, trials, and persecution in this life, such that our outer being is wasting away. Certainly Jesus himself taught us to pray for our daily bread, which feeds our outer being, but it is a simple prayer for our necessities, not for prosperity, or freedom from difficulty. The priority in this time is our inner life, while we wait for the redemption of our outer being and the rest of the material creation at Christ’s return. Is that reflected in your prayers? Here’s a question to discuss over lunch today and in your Citygroups this week: How would we pray differently if we thought the most important issues in our lives today related to our inner being, rather than our outer being?
How might you live differently if the inner life was your priority? How might you use your money, your time, and your energy differently? How might you parent differently? We must attend to the necessities of our outer being and that of those we love, especially those for whom we have unique responsibility, but what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Proverbs 4:23 instructs you to “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Juan Priedo is a brother who’s a member at Risen Christ Fellowship in Germantown and gathers with us on Sundays he’s unable to make their service due to his schedule. A couple weeks ago after church he simply asked me, “How’s your soul?” and I realized I’d been so busy that week with other things, I hadn’t paid much attention to my soul, and I’m a pastor, so I can only imagine the challenge it must be for you all. Don’t let the cares of this life consume you. Yes, go to work, yes, pay your bills, yes, feed your kids, but don’t sink all your money, time, and energy into strengthening the outer being of yourself and your family, when what you, you family, and everyone else needs most is power from God for your inner being.
The thing this power is to affect in us, according to verse 17, is that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. Note the Trinitarian nature of the prayer. It is directed to the Father, the request is that he’d strengthen us with power through his Spirit, so that Christ, the Son, may dwell in our hearts through faith. This is just another picture of how communion with God works, and we’ve been seeing it the past few weeks in the sermons on congregational singing. In Ephesians 5:18 we saw that we are to be filled by the Spirit, but then we saw in Col 3:16 the thing with which he fills us is the word of Christ. We saw just last week that we are to rejoice with joy, and joy is a fruit of the Spirit, but that joy comes from believing in Christ. So here prayer is directed to the Father, the Spirit is the one who affects us with his power, and the effect of the power is that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith.
Now what’s interesting about that is that the Bible is clear that Christ already dwells in the hearts of all believers by faith. In Colossians, the parallel letter to Ephesians, Paul says that Christ is in us (Col 1:27). So what is his prayer here, then? It must mean something like that what is already true of us would be something that would come to characterize our experience more and more. It must mean something like, “though Christ is already in you, I pray according to the riches of God’s glory, he would be so more and more.” It’s as though Jesus is already in the house, but now Paul prays he’d take over more and more of it, and that our communion with him would grow stronger and stronger. The day you get married, you’re married, and you begin to dwell in the same house. But there is still so much room for the communion between you to grow, and that’s what Paul is praying for here. He’s praying that God would give you his power to enable that kind of communion, and it’s that that will give real strength to your inner being. He fills that out a bit more in the next part of the prayer though, which is ultimately that you would be filled with all the fullness of God, so let’s look at that next. You need power from God for the fullness of God.
For the fullness of God
The end of this prayer is for the fullness of God, but there’s a path to it we must follow first that also fills out for us what it means for Christ to dwell in our hearts by faith. In the middle of verse 17, we have the beginning of another petition, and it is that we, having been rooted and grounded in love, would have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth. There we have this idea more explicitly that something has already happened: We’ve already been rooted and grounded in love. If you are a Christian, you already know that God loves you in Christ. That’s the root and ground of all our communion with God. If you are married, you already know your spouse loves you: That’s what they publicly promised on your wedding day. Now maybe a spouse isn’t completely trustworthy, but God is. The question of his love is settled the day you believe. That’s the root and ground of your relationship with him: Not your love for him, which is shaky ground, but his love for you, proven at the cross, is something in which you can be rooted and grounded.
Yet once a plant is rooted and grounded in good soil, what does it do? It grows. So you, once you are rooted and grounded in the love of God in Christ, need power from God to grow, not so that you might attain his love, but so that you might comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and so know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. That’s what it’s like for Christ to dwell in your heart through faith. It’s when you start to comprehend what you already have in him, and know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. That’s the thing for which we need strength, verse 18 says, right? That’s why we need power from God. Comprehension refers to thought, so God very much intends for our minds to be active in this process, and yet our minds need power from God for it. That which we are to comprehend is called “the breadth and length and height and depth” in verse 18.
These dimensional terms appear in the Bible especially in connection with God’s instructions in Exodus on how the people were to build the tabernacle, the place where God said he would dwell with his people. In Ephesians 2, though, Paul said the church, made up of Jew and Gentile, was now being built into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:22). And look at what he says here in verse 18. He says we comprehend the breadth, and length, and height, and depth with all the saints. I know I’m throwing a lot at you, but what’s all that mean? Basically it means that to really comprehend the love of Christ, we must comprehend it with all the saints, because it is a love he has for all the saints, who he is uniting as one in himself. And the place where that unity is made visible is in visible churches.
We can’t comprehend with all the saints the breadth and length and height and depth at the same time, but we can get started with the saints in our visible church. There are at least three ways the visible church of which we are members helps us comprehend the love of Christ. First, it’s in the visible church that we speak and hear of the love of Christ. It’s there we speak the truth in love to one another (Eph 4:15) and address one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19) as we saw a few weeks ago. It’s easy for us to drift from the truth of the love of Christ as it is revealed in the word of the gospel, but God has given us pastors to speak that word of truth to us, and to equip us to speak that word of truth to one another. Second, in the visible church we see the love of Christ in the diversity of its members. We become family with people we’d have never met if it weren’t for the church. We become family with people we might not even have liked if we had remained in the world outside the church. You could say that in this we comprehend the breadth and length of the love of Christ, in that we see it encompass so much more than me and people like me. And, third, in the visible church we experience the love of Christ as we extend that love to one another. This is perhaps especially the case when we bear with one another in love and forgive one another as God in Christ forgave us, things Paul is about to talk about in Ephesians chapter 4. When you really let your guard down and let yourself be known, with all your sins, weaknesses, and differences, and the people of Christ truly love you, you begin to comprehend more of the height and depth of his love. When you let your guard down enough to really sin against one another, that’s when the relationship is just starting to get good. That’s a strange aspiration I have for our church: That we’d know one another well enough to sin against each other, and then to really repent and forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. When that happens, you get to comprehend more of the height and depth of the love of Christ.
And the outcome of that, verse 19, is that you would know the love of Christ…that surpasses knowledge. Strange, right? How can you know something that surpasses knowledge? How can you comprehend it? On one level, clearly you can, because that’s what Paul is praying for. You can know it in a kind of propositional sense, and you must know it in a propositional sense, meaning you know the facts of Christ’s love for you. Remember in this text that Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, and we put our faith in Christ because in the word, we are told certain things about him: He died for our sins, on the third day he rose again, we have been blessed in him with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, we’ve been made alive together with him, we’ve been reconciled to one another and to God through him, he himself is our peace…If you don’t know these things, you won’t know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. You can’t believe in him you know nothing about; you can’t comprehend that which you don’t know. You must not despise or skip such knowledge, but you also must not stop with it.
To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge means not only to know about it, but to know it personally. It is to experience it. To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge means it sinks far deeper than what your mind can comprehend. In our anatomy, you can even imagine it entering through the ear, and then traveling to the brain. We saw this order last week: We hear, then we believe. But Paul’s prayer here is that the Spirit would push the truth down from the mind into the heart, that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith, that we would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Here’s Tim Keller’s illustration: It’s like the love of Christ enters the first floor, and then what the Spirit does is to successively push it deeper and deeper through floor after floor so that it affects you at the deepest center of who you are. At the deepest core of who you are you really begin to feel like Christ loves you, in communion with all the saints.
That’s what your inner being needs more than anything else, and therefore it’s what you need more than anything else. It’s what you need more than anything else, and it’s one thing you can’t get from anywhere else. I wonder, if you are here today and you are not yet a believer in Jesus, where else do you think you can find this kind of life? You can try to live a moral, virtuous life, and you may even succeed in getting better, though you are never perfect. But a code of ethics can’t love you. You can dabble in spirituality, but a nameless, impersonal god can’t love you. You can feel very loved by another human even, but only Christ can love you with a love that surpasses knowledge, because only Christ is truly God, with the infinite power and unchangeable being to give an infinitely powerful and unchanging love, only Christ loved His church and gave himself up for her when we were his enemies, and only Christ rose again from the dead, so that now not even death will part those who believe from his love. He is what you need. Repent and believe in him, and you will have him.
And then, rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, may God strengthen you with power so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. The final result of this, the part of the prayer we’ve been driving toward, at the end of verse 19, is so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To be filled with all the fullness of God means the church becomes all God intended it to be. It is to be a people who glorify God for the spiritual blessings with which he has blessed us, who do the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do, who relate to God with boldness and confidence, who bear with one another in love, speak the truth in love to encourage one another, no longer steal, but work honestly, and then share it with any who are in need, forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us, banish all sexual immorality, sing to one another and to the Lord, live lives of profound thankfulness, and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Don’t you want that? You need power from God to get it. And the way he gives it is by giving you a deep sense of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
So, a few things this means for us: For one thing, it means we must aspire to a deeper knowledge of the love of Christ. That means a hunger for more knowledge of the Bible, for true biblical doctrine, because we cannot comprehend what we don’t know. And it doesn’t end with that. It also means prayerfully and together seeking a deeper experience of the love of Christ upon our hearts. Do you believe that’s even possible for you? You say, “Well I don’t know; I’m not a very emotional person.” Neither am I; trust me. And the Apostle Paul, who wrote this letter, wasn’t some sappy bucket of tears either. Yet here he speaks of knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. That is possible for you if you are in Christ. There are still riches of God’s glory that haven’t been spent. Why settle for anything less than that? Let’s not be complacent about the current state of our spiritual experience.
And, on the other hand, we must be content, which means we don’t panic if we don’t have a deep sense of the love of Christ constantly in us. This experience of the love of Christ of which Paul speaks is something for which he prays precisely because it’s not something we can manufacture on our timing. You need God’s power for it, and God is sovereign in when, and how much of it, he gives. I mentioned there are certain ways we can come together as the saints to seek this more: By speaking and hearing the truth of scripture to and from one another, by loving one another across our differences, by forgiving one another as God has forgiven us in Christ. Take those steps. In your Citygroups this week, speak the word of Christ to one another. Who could you invite to spend more time with and direct that conversation toward Christ? Try doing that with another member who is different from you, who you notice you don’t naturally gravitate toward, and really let your guard down. Let them in, and see if you don’t see more of the length and breadth of the love of Christ. Get to know one another well enough that you start sinning against each other, and when that happens, don’t start shrinking back; dive deeper in, and forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you. That might begin as simply as finding ways to just be around each other more. I know everyone’s busy; I feel it too, but if we spent less time furthering the interests of our outer being, might we not have a bit more time to strengthen our inner being by making more room in our lives for the saints? It can be as simple as taking things you’re already doing, and including other church members in them. Steve and Allie did this beautifully last weekend: They already wanted to get dinner and go to a park, so they invited us, Shannon, and the Easleas to join them, and we all got to spend that time together and have edifying conversations. Little things like that add up to deepen our experience of the love of Christ.
By the power of the Spirit, you can do such things, and obviously, following Paul’s example here, you pray for this deeper knowledge of the love of Christ, and then you wait patiently on God to bring it. Keller points out that in the lives of Christians throughout the history of the church who have really started to plumb these depths, they’ll tell you it doesn’t feel like going from strength to strength in one unbroken chain of greater depth. It’s more like a lot of stops and starts. It’s a struggle, a wrestling with God even, but this prayer teaches us to keep wrestling, because it really is possible to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and it really is what you need, it really is what we need, if we are to be filled with all the fullness of God in this church. And why should we care to be filled with all the fullness of God? Even this end of the prayer is not the end of the prayer. Let’s close by looking at verses 20-21, where we’ll see that you need power from God for the fullness of God to the glory of God.
To the glory of God
Verse 20 kind of transitions us from a prayer to a benediction, in which Paul ascribes glory to God, first as the one who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us. So again, if you think God can’t really give you this kind of inner strength, that he can’t really give you a knowledge of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we can’t really be filled with all the fullness of God, that’s nothing less than unbelief, and worth being confessed as sin. The God to whom Paul prays, the God to whom we pray, is the God who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think. It’s still about his power at work within us, to strengthen our inner being, not about him doing more than we ask or think for our outer beings, and yet, why are your aspirations often so low for your inner being? If you can even think to ask for God to do something in your inner being, know that he is able to do far more abundantly than that!
And the end of it, verse 21, is that he would be glorified in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Of course, God is glorious, but the desire expressed here is that he would get the glory he deserves in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. When the church is filled with all the fullness of God, God is glorified in the church and in Christ Jesus. When we are bearing with one another in love, maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, speaking the truth in love to one another, singing to one another, giving thanks always and for everything, forgiving one another, and so forth, it displays the power of God, the love of God, the wisdom of God, all that God is, and so God is glorified in the church, and he is glorified in Christ Jesus in that Jesus is the one who made this happen. He himself is our peace, who brought us to God and made us one together.
One of the dangers of speaking about experiencing the love of Christ is that we can be drawn to it simply because we perceive that would bring a lot of positive feelings into our lives. It would. It should. It does. Yet even these serve a greater purpose than ourselves. Even these are meant to bring God glory. And the other danger is that we can read it very individualistically, as though the goal is simply for me as an individual to experience the love of Christ in my heart. That is a necessary part of it; the prayer is that Christ would dwell in your hearts, plural, as in each of your hearts. Yet even that serves the greater purpose of God being glorified in the church, and we’ve already seen that we only comprehend the love of Christ with all the saints. This is the end for which we were created. This is why we exist. This is the purpose our lives were meant to serve, and the purpose they can again serve thanks to what Jesus has done for us: That God would be glorified in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever.
If you want to see God glorified, you’ll have a concern that he be glorified not only in your individual life, but in the church. And if you want to see God glorified, you’ll have a concern that he be glorified not only in your church in your generation, but throughout all generations. There are a number of kids currently growing up in this church, and we seem to keep having more. We currently do kids programming during our services, and we are giving more intentional thought over this next year to how we can best minister to kids, because we have this concern that God be glorified in the next generation. And we know not every kid raised by Christian parents will become a Christian themselves, even if the parents and the church in which they grew up were the most faithful parents and churches ever. God is sovereign and shows throughout scripture that being born to Christian parents is no guarantee of being born again. Nonetheless, he has made clear his desire to be glorified throughout all generations, and notice here the path to that is not discovering the best kids program. The path to that is being filled with all the fullness of God, which comes through prayer, as we know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. You want to see God glorified in the next generation? You want to really help the kids growing up in this church? You should want to. And if you do, focus on knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge yourself, focus on seeing this church filled with all the fullness of God, and if the kids here grow up around that, don’t you think many of them would want in on it?
That is possible. God will be glorified in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever, and he will do so as his church is filled with all his fullness. Be content, but don’t be complacent about the current state of your spiritual experience. God is able to do far more abundantly than all you ask or think, and out of the riches of his glory, he has more to give. May he give you strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God, for the glory of God.