November 20, 2016
Once separated by issues such as culture, race, and religious practice, believers find themselves united in Christ. Yet as Paul prayed in Ephesians, the riches and dimensions of God’s love are vast and immeasurable and require a Spirit-enabled strength to comprehend. Alistair Begg makes several helpful observations about God’s love, reminding us that those adopted into God’s family inherit an eternity of love.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Philippians, and we’ll read familiar verses from Philippians as something of a cross-reference for our study in a moment or two in Ephesians 3. Philippians chapter 2. I’ll read from verse 1:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Ephesians chapter 3—and we’ve been in Paul’s prayer here. Someone said to me, going out this morning, “You know, these verses are very full, aren’t they?” I said, “Yes, they are very full. I feel like as though we ought to start all over again and see if we can’t do a better job of this.” We’ve been here, and maybe one day God will spare us long enough to come back and try this again. But for now we’re at verses 18 and 19. We probably should just read from 14 through to 19:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom [the whole] family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have 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.”
Father, we bow before the vastness of all that is contained in these verses, praying for the help of the Holy Spirit to understand and to believe and to live in the light of its truth, to the praise of the Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, it’s important when we study through a book like this just to keep reminding ourselves of certain truths that are important as we go along. We, this morning, reminded ourselves that Paul is writing to those who are believing people, to those who are “in Christ.” And we may have said in passing what I want just to reinforce in beginning now—namely, that these individuals who were now united in Christ had previously been the very opposite of united. They had been separated from one another culturally and in racial terms and in terms of their understanding of God and certainly of the Lord Jesus Christ, and their background was such that those old convictions and those old ties and those old relationships were not things that were immediately obliterated for them in coming to Christ, in much the same way that our newfound faith in Jesus brings with it many aspects of life that still trail behind us. And often it is that our minds have to catch up to our hearts in terms of the love of Christ.
I think that’s probably why it is that he is reinforcing for these folks the wonder of their “being rooted and grounded in love” and how much they need the enabling of the Holy Spirit’s strength in order to live in the light of that truth, so that their testimony to the watching world in Ephesus was the difference that Jesus had made. And so he encourages them by way of their deep roots and by way of their stable and solid foundations. They were being made aware of what Paul writes throughout his letters—classically, in Romans chapter 5—made aware of the fact that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” And that is part of the birthright of those who are in Christ.
So, having first prayed for them to be strengthened with power in their inner being, he now prays that they may “comprehend” and “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” This notion of the immeasurable love of Christ is akin to what Paul has already said, where he has used this adjective concerning other aspects. For example, in 1:19, he speaks about the “immeasurable … power” of God. In 2:7, he speaks about “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace.” And now he comes to these immeasurable, unknowable dimensions of his love.
Now, as I tried to come up with something of an outline here during the week, I was largely unsuccessful. And so, you know, when you do this exercise, there are occasions where what you have to do is just give up and just start writing. And this evening’s study was one of those occasions. And so, I just give to you the observations that I have made concerning the text, and I hope that they will both be true to the text and helpful to us.
Observation number one is this: that they (that is, the believers in Ephesus) and we (that is, those who believe here tonight in Cleveland) will not comprehend the love of God in Christ in isolation from all the saints. You’ll notice in verse 18: “that you may have strength, that you may be able to comprehend with all the saints.” So in other words, this is not something that happens to us on our own in our bedrooms, but rather that this is the birthright of all who have been placed in Christ and that the dimensions of the love of Christ are discovered, if you like, corporately—not exclusively so but definitely so.
In other words, he says, “This is something that will have crossed the boundaries that marked your lives before this.” And so, in the same way for us today, if I might borrow almost from Hillary Clinton: it doesn’t “take a village,” but it does take a family. And it does take a family. That’s what he’s saying: “that you might comprehend with all the saints”—in other words, with the family of God; that it actually, it takes the entire family of God (the family that we’ve met and those that we haven’t met, those that have gone before us and those that will come after us) to be able actually to get an inkling of the nature of God’s love.
The family of God, made up, in Ephesus, of Jews and gentiles. The family of God, made up today, in the average congregation, of people from different backgrounds, different ages and stages of life, different standings socially, and so on—male and female, young and old, and so we could go through. And he’s saying to them, “My prayer for you is that as you live together with one another, as you’re brought together in the body of Christ, you may be able to comprehend this, as we sing of it, as we affirm it, as we encourage one another in it.”
I found myself this week as well coming up with a host of hymns that we never sing that help me in my cause. One such hymn has the lines
Come, let us sing of a wonderful love,
Tender and true …
Out of the heart of the Father above,
Streaming to me and to you.
So, this is a song that we sing to one another, and we say to one another, “Come on, now, let us sing of the love of God, the love of God that streams from the Father, out of the vastness of his resources, and it streams to me, and it streams to you, it streams to us, and we discover it together—brothers and sisters underneath the family and fatherhood of God, growing in our understanding.” That’s the first observation.
The second is this: that we will not comprehend and know this love of Christ without learning to think properly. Without learning to think properly. One of the dangers attaching to love of any notion or sort is that we immediately think in emotional terms. And so we would be tempted to assume that somehow or another, our discovery in this dimension will all be somewhere in our heart of hearts. But no, as with every truth of the Bible, it is through our minds to our hearts.
That’s why John Stott, in his little book, the addresses that he gave so many years ago, helped us out immensely by writing a little book entitled Your Mind Matters. Your Mind Matters. For as we think, so we go. One of Stott’s heroes was Charles Simeon of Cambridge, and Simeon on one occasion, addressing his congregation, observed as follows: “For the attainment of divine knowledge we are directed to combine a dependence on God’s Spirit with our own researches.” “We are [commanded] to combine a dependence on God’s Spirit with our own researches.” And then he says, “Let us then not presume to separate what God has … united.” Some of us are of the sort of bent that just wants to feel it all. Others of us are of the bent that wants to research it out for ourselves; we are investigative; we are, if you like, working in a far more cerebral dimension than a visceral dimension. And the Bible has the perfect balance between the two, as is observed in this passage and as is reinforced by Simeon’s comment.
Thirdly, the love of Christ is here described in surprisingly comprehensive terms. Surprisingly comprehensive terms.
Now, I think it is true to say that we usually measure spatial objects in breadth, length, and either height or depth—for height and depth largely is the same thing, depending on whether you’re measuring it from the top or you’re measuring it from the bottom. So, spatially, we think in terms of those three dimensions. But interestingly, here it is in four dimensions, and it is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth. I hope you’re not one of these people that adds an h to height, because that is not right. There is no h in height: it’s not “the heighth.” If you find yourself saying “heighth,” then “apologithe” immediately. “The breadth and length and height and depth.”
Now, when you come to something like this, of course, it’s an immediate danger zone for small group Bible studies. You’ll immediately find there is somebody who’s got the explanation for why this is. Of course they don’t, and you shouldn’t let them talk for too long. But it is interesting just to ponder it, isn’t it? And I came up on all kinds of suggestions. I think only one of them is particularly helpful, and I’ll come to it. But, for example, Matthew Henry in his ancient commentary says this is to remind us that the love of Christ is “higher than heaven,” it is “deeper than hell,” it is “longer than the earth,” and it is “broader than the sea.” Well, okay, that’s good, that’s helpful. Someone else says it “is ‘broad’ enough to encompass all mankind,” it is “‘long’ enough to last for [all of] eternity,” it is “‘deep’ enough to reach the most degraded sinner,” and it is “‘high’ enough to exalt him or her to heaven.” That’s also good.
But the reason we read from Philippians chapter 2, and particularly verses 5–11, is to make the point (and I think perhaps this is the most helpful observation, although we don’t need to tie ourselves up in knots over it) that the love of the Lord Jesus Christ needs to be seen not only in terms of its length and its breadth, reaching out, if you like, to the four corners of the earth—and that’s another thing that you’ll find; they say that we should see it in terms of the cross of Jesus Christ, with the length and the breadth expressed in the crossbar of the cross and so on—so that its length and its breadth reaches out to the four corners of the earth, but its size is measured in contemplating, if you like, the depth to which the Lord Jesus Christ went in order to secure our salvation. “He who was equal with God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself of no reputation, taking on and being formed in likeness as a man, becoming obedient to death on a cross, and he then was exalted to the highest place that heaven affords.” Whatever way we want to try and get our heads around the notion, the main and the plain thing is surely obvious: that Paul is magnifying the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ. So, when we’ve said that, at least we’ve hit the heart of things.
Fourthly, as you read the text, it is clear that comprehending the love of Christ is a matter of knowing the unknowable: “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” This is a paradox, isn’t it? How can you know what you can’t know? “So that you might know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” So what are we to do with this?
Well, our knowledge of the love of Christ, as we understand it in our thinking, as we know it in our heart of hearts, is, if you like, an experimental knowledge or an experiential knowledge, but it can never, by definition, be an exhaustive knowledge. We cannot exhaust the knowledge of the love of Christ. There are dimensions to the love of Christ that will always remain outside of us and beyond us until finally his work of grace is completed in our lives—so that the four different dimensions are introduced to set out the surpassing magnitude of the love of Christ, which, at least in one sense, is beyond our ability to know.
I’m so grateful for hymn writers who manage to encapsulate theological truth in verses that are easy to memorize. And one of the hymns that came to mind during the week I want to share with you now. It was written by a lady called Shekleton. She died in 1883. She lived… She was fifty-six when she died, so you can figure out when she was born: 1827, she was born. She lived in the South of Ireland. She was an invalid. I don’t believe that she was ever married. She wrote a couple of hymns, the best of which I’m going to quote to you now. And she obviously had been reading Paul’s prayer here in Ephesians chapter 3: “that you might comprehend and know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” And so she sat down and wrote,
It passes knowledge, that dear love of thine,
My Jesus, Savior!—yet this soul of mine
Would of [thy] love, in all its [breadth] and length,
Its height and [depth], [its] everlasting strength
Know more and more.
It passes telling, that dear love of thine,
My Jesus, Savior!—yet these lips of mine
Would fain proclaim to sinners far and near,
A love which can remove all guilty fear,
And love beget.
It passes praises, that dear love of thine,
My Jesus, Savior!—yet this heart of mine
Would sing [that] love so [full], so [rich], so free,
Which [brings] a [rebel] sinner such as me
[Nigh unto] God.
But though I cannot [sing], or [tell], or know
The fullness of thy love while here below,
My empty vessel I may freely bring.
O thou, who art of love the living spring,
My vessel fill.
And when my [Savior] face-to-face I see,
When at his lofty throne I bow the knee,
Then of his love, in all its breadth and length,
Its height and depth, its everlasting strength,
My soul shall sing.
What a wonderful poem! What an amazing piece of work, capturing the very essence of what Paul is bringing home to these folks, bringing home to us tonight: that you have the provision of God to you and his love shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Spirit. You have the evidences of it, the indications of it. You see it in the lives of one another and so on. But eventually, somehow or another, it’s out there, and it is beyond you.
And the end result of it, as we saw this morning—and similarly so (this morning: “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”)—it is here in order “that you [might] be filled with all the fullness of God.” “Filled with all the fullness of God.” Now, that doesn’t mean that we become divine, but it means that we become the beneficiaries of all that God has promised to us in Jesus.
As I sat for a long time and thought about this and I thought, “Well, who can help me with this? What book have I ever read in the past where somebody had given me an insight into this?” I went, as I often do, to Knowing God by Jim Packer. If you’ve never read Knowing God, it should be on your Christmas list, and you should make it a challenge and an opportunity for the year that lies ahead. It will reward your careful attention. And in that book Knowing God, he at a certain section unpacks something which is helpful—was helpful to me and I hope will be helpful to you—in thinking about being filled with all the fullness of God in the way in which God operates, tying it to the fact that in Ephesians chapter 1, Paul talks about the fact that we have been adopted as his sons, in that great opening paean of praise that he has: “… chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we [would] be holy and blameless before him. … He predestined us for adoption … as sons through Jesus Christ.” So, it is the reality of what it means to be the adopted children of our heavenly Father, who loves to give good gifts to his children, who pours out the dimensions of his grace upon us so that we might be filled up with him. That picture of God entering into our lives by way of adoption I found to be helpful, and I hope it will be helpful to you.
Here is Packer on the subject, just briefly. “Adoption,” he writes,
by its very nature, is an act of free kindness to the person adopted. If you become a father by adopting a child, you do so because you choose to, not because you are bound to. Similarly, God adopts us because He chooses to. He had no duty to do so. He need not have done anything about our sins save punish us as we [deserve]. But He loved us; so He redeemed us, forgave us, took us as His sons, and gave Himself to us as our Father.
Nor does His grace stop short with that initial act, any more than the love of human parents who adopt stops short with [their] completing of the legal process that makes the child [heirs]. The establishing of the child’s status as a member of the family is only a beginning. The real task remains: to establish a genuinely filial relationship between your adopted child and yourself. [And] it is this, above all, that you want to see. Accordingly, you set yourself to win the child’s love by loving it. You seek to excite affection by showing affection. [And] so [it is] with God. And throughout our life in this world, and to all eternity beyond. He will constantly be showing us, in one way or another, more and more of His love, and thereby increasing our love to Him continually. The prospect before the adopted [children] of God is an eternity of love.
Now, this helps me, because I need somehow or another to grapple with this idea of “the fullness of God.” How can it be [that] there is still more to be discovered? What is it going to mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? What is it going to mean to be caught up in the indwelling reality of the presence of God?
Now, I’ve lived long enough to live through all kinds of experiences that were offered to me as a young person. I had a crack at most of them, I must say. And when it came to this matter of knowing God’s fullness, of being invaded by God, of being filled by the Spirit of God, I’ve lost track of how many times people tried to help me by suggesting that somehow or another, what I needed to have happen to me was a kind of inward explosion, a kind of single, life-transforming psychic event: “If you will only have this happen to you,” “If you will only have this done to you,” “If you will only come up here at the end of the service and have the minister touch you,” or “If you will only go in the back room,” or wherever it might be. I’ve been in all the places; trust me. And anyone that was going to give it to me, I was up for it, because I wanted it. I want to know what this is. I want to know what it is to “be filled with the fullness of God.” Don’t you? I want to know what it means for God to dwell in me by the Holy Spirit.
But the more I read my Bible, I realized that what I needed was not an inward explosion, but it was an inward communion with God—an inward communion with God, whereby the Spirit of God through the Word of God among the people of God was making Jesus increasingly precious to me; that the task, if you like, that the work of the Holy Spirit is to enable us as believers to realize with, if you like, an increasing clarity the meaning of our filial relationship with Jesus. That’s Packer’s point there, isn’t it? He says that if you adopt a child, it isn’t just finished—you sign a form and you’re done with it. That’s only the beginning of it. The real wonder in it is in developing and discovering the nature of this filial relationship.
And so he says, when Paul prays for these Ephesian believers, that he’s praying to that end: “that Christ may dwell in you,” that there is an intimacy in this dimension, that there is an engagement with God, that this is not something that is simply cerebral—that is, something mechanistic—but that through our minds as we think and our hearts as they’re stirred, we come to an awareness of these things; so that the work of the Spirit of God is to lead us into an ever-deepening response to God, to cause us to wonder that we are God’s children by adoption, thereby encouraging us to look to God as a Father and then enabling us to live as children of that Father.
Now, by this time in my notes, I was pretty well done. And you’ll be encouraged to know I’m pretty well done right now. I sat for a while, and I thought about this: that God is willing to fill us to capacity—that he has all the gifts and the graces that we require. And when Jesus argues or teaches from the lesser to the greater in the Gospels, he does so in a way that we can understand: “If you being earthly, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more”—“how much more”—“will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Not as some psychic, momentous, immediate, existential event, whatever hugs and encouragements there may be along the way—and if we had a long time and a different context, I could talk to you about that as well. Whatever those are…
I remember I just have one in mind. I was walking down the Tottenham Court Road one day in London and was in a vast crowd in a busy London. And in a way that I have no explanation for at all, it was as though God picked me up and gave me a hug and set me back down on the Tottenham Court Road again. And later on, I was talking to one of my friends, Joel, who’s a Black Pentecostal brother. And I told him, I said, “Hey, I was walking down the Tottenham Court Road, and God hugged me.” And I’ll never forget: he says, “Well, you remember that, ’cause he ain’t gonna do it a lot.” Because if I thought that that was the key, then I would be back on the Tottenham Court Road with frequency, saying, “O God, could you hug me again like you did on the Tottenham Court Road?” No, you see it is the inner communion, it is the work of the Spirit who does these things. He knows when you need a hug. He knows when we need a rebuke. He knows because he knows, because he’s God.
Now, when you think about it individually, it’s magnificent. When you think about it in corporate terms, it’s even more magnificent, isn’t it? That God comes to a church in Cleveland as he comes to the church in Ephesus, and he says, “Now, as you study this prayer and as you try and think through to what it really means, then I trust that you will pray for one another, that you will pray for yourselves as a congregation, that that which I have made available to you, in and through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, may be yours in increasing measure.”
“O,” says the hymn writer,
Fill me with thy fullness, Lord,
Until my very heart [o’erflow]
[With] kindling thought and glowing word,
Your love to tell, your praise to show.
Father, accomplish your purposes in and through us, we pray. Meet us at our point of need. Pour out your Spirit upon us in increased measure, we pray. Forgive our sins. Increase our hunger and our appetite. Strengthen us so that we’re able to actually deal with what it means to have you dwell in our lives in increasing measure and fullness. Save us from paddling around in the shallows. Take us out, Lord, into the ocean of your love. Forgive us for treating your desire to give us good gifts as if they were coming being eked out by a grudging Scotsman rather than by someone with a deeply generous heart. Lord, forgive us small views of your vastness, and grant that the very thought of you, Lord Jesus Christ, may be enough to stir renewed affection within us. For we ask it in your name. Amen.
 Romans 5:5 (ESV).
 Ephesians 1:19 (ESV).
 Ephesians 2:7 (ESV).
 Robert Walmsley, “Come, Let Us Sing of a Wonderful Love.”
 Charles Simeon, “The Means of Our Justification before God,” in Helps to Composition; or, Six Hundred Skeletons of Sermons; Several Being the Substance of Sermons Preached before the University (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1810), 2:401–402.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 137.
 Mary Shekleton, “It Passeth Knowledge.” Language modernized.
 Ephesians 1:4–5 (ESV).
 See Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13.
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 195–96.
 Luke 11:13 (paraphrased).
 Frances Ridley Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me” (1872). Language modernized.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.