Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Ephesians 3:14-21
I pray that you may have the power 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, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19)
In a magazine article some time back, a story was told that I think illustrates an important point. A growing church was making construction plans. In honour of the pastor’s many years of ministry, the building committee told him they wanted to put his name on the cornerstone. He thanked them for their thoughtfulness, and then he quoted First Corinthians 10:31, “…whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”
He then asked that the committee not let his name appear. If you were to drive by that church today, instead of the pastor’s name, you would read these words on the cornerstone: “For the glory of God.”
“For the glory of God.” Or, as Paul puts it in today’s passage from Ephesians: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph. 3:21)
“For the glory of God.” That’s the only purpose of any church building. That’s the only purpose of the people who are called the Body of Christ. That’s the only reason for the church’s existence. That, says Paul, is why God gives us his love and his power. It is all for his glory!
The apostle Paul starts our passage with a prayer. We can break down what Paul says into three distinct petitions. As we go through this passage you will see that Paul prays that we: measure the immeasurable, know the unknowable, and contain the uncontainable.
First, the apostle prays that we may comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love. Now, I know that he was praying for the Ephesian Christians—but this is Scripture, and so it is also his prayer for us. Paul wants us to understand how wide and long and high and deep is the love of our Saviour for us. Now, we can ask—and should ask—that very question: how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of Christ?
Here’s another story: it comes from England, in the time of Oliver Cromwell.
A young soldier had been tried in military court and sentenced to death. He was to be shot at the “ringing of the curfew bell.” His fiancée climbed up into the bell tower several hours before curfew time and tied herself to the bell’s huge clapper. At curfew time, when only muted sounds came from the bell tower, Cromwell demanded to know why the bell was not ringing. His soldiers went to investigate, and found the young woman—bruised and cut and bleeding from being smashed back and forth against the great bell. They cut her loose, and brought her to Cromwell. He was so impressed by her willingness to suffer on behalf of the one she loved that he let the soldier go, saying: “Curfew shall not ring tonight.” *
That story illustrates the love of Christ. Christ’s love is so wide and long and high and deep that he is willing to do this—and more—for us. Brothers and sisters, this is the kind of love Paul wants us to personally know and live out in our lives. How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Behold the cross. I’m not talking simply about what happened on the cross. I’m talking about the actual cross. It points up to the heavens, and it points down to the depths. It points to the east, and it points to the west. The love of Christ is like the cross—it points in all directions, and to the furthest reaches of the universe.
How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Think of the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, between humanity and God. The love of Christ tore down and destroyed the wall that separated Jew from Gentile, and which separated human beings from God (Eph. 2:14). It is this same love which redeemed for God people from every tribe and language and nation; it broke down the wall between different races and cultures and languages (Rev. 5:9; 7:9).
How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Scripture provides us with some clues. As the eternal Son of God, Christ in heaven had glory and majesty. He was very God of very God. By him were the heavens and the earth and everything in them made. His almighty arm held up the sun and moon and stars. The praises of the cherubim and seraphim perpetually surrounded him. The full chorus of the hallelujahs of the universe unceasingly flowed to the foot of his throne. He reigned supreme over all Creation. He was God above all, blessed and exalted forever.
Then, Christ took on our flesh—and he emptied himself of all of this glory. He left it behind. Instead, he took on our sin and our shame, our misery and our grief, our fallenness and our depravity. He made himself nothing. He took on the nature of a servant. He humbled himself. Because of his great love, he emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-8).
How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Think now of what happened on the cross. The one who was King of the universe became obedient unto death. The one who was the Son of God became a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He suffered, he bled, and he died. He was forsaken by his Father. He endured the torments of hell. He suffered all of this out of love for us.
How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? The width of God’s love is immense; it extends to every tribe and language and people and nation; it covers every sin and need and care and situation. The length of God’s love is eternal; it existed before time, it is never-ending, it is unconditional, and it is boundless. The depth of God’s love is unfathomable; it caused God to stoop as low as we are—to reach down to our level. The height of God’s love is infinite; it extends to the highest heaven and to the very throne of God.
Measuring God’s love is impossible. How can you measure the immeasurable? And yet, as disciples of Jesus, we are being called to show this immeasurable love—to demonstrate this love in our world.
Paul’s second petition is that the Ephesian church will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (v.19). He prays that they will “know this love”—that is, experience it personally in their hearts and in their lives. And he has the same prayer for us—that we will make the love of Christ our own. He wants you to make Christ’s love your love. And Paul knows that such love—when it is lived out—becomes a witness, becomes a light to those who do not yet possess it.
I want you to notice that Paul thinks we can know the unknowable. Right there in verse 19, he says that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge”—yet he prays that we may know it! How can this be? Well, I think Paul means a special kind of “knowing”—the kind that cannot be learned in a theology class, but which can only be known through experience. Once we know and personally experience the love of God, we come to realize it is indescribable and utterly amazing. Indescribable; amazing—and yet, it is the most real thing in the life of a believer. That’s why Paul’s prayer for us is that we may know this unsurpassing love.
Paul’s third petition is that we may be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Paul is praying that we may be filled with the love of God. But, more than that, he prays that we may be filled with the God of Love—filled not only with God’s love, but filled with God, who is Love! The Book of Acts tells us what that looks like. The fourth chapter of Acts paints a picture for us. Peter and John are in Jerusalem, some days after Pentecost, and they have been hauled before the religious authorities and ordered not to preach their message to anyone. But after they are released, they find some other believers and they have a prayer meeting! And after they had prayed, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).
Now, when we hear about a building being shaken, we automatically think of an earthquake, or maybe an explosion. But in the New Testament church of Jerusalem it was the God of love that shook the building. It was the presence of God’s Spirit that did it.
Can you imagine us being so filled with the Spirit of God—with the love of God—that our sanctuary walls would start to shake? Paul wants us to be filled with the Spirit of God. In other words, his prayer is that we may contain the uncontainable. Wow! What a tall order! When King Solomon built and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, even he had to ask himself: “… will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
The God of love is too big and too awesome to be contained in a building or in any single person. And yet, Paul’s hope for us is that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
What happens when we try to contain the uncontainable? Think, for a moment, about an empty drinking glass being filled from a full pitcher of water. The full pitcher not only fills the glass, but fills it to overflowing. That’s what happens when we are filled with the love of God. Not only are we filled, but we are filled to overflowing. God’s great love in our lives splashes onto those around us. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
And if we want to be filled with this overflowing love, the apostle Paul tells us what needs to happen in our lives—as individuals and as a church. He prays that we may be “rooted and grounded in love” (v.17b); he prays that “Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith” (v.17a); and he prays that we “may be strengthened in [our] inner being with power through his Spirit” (v.16b).
These are three different ways of saying the same thing: you need to have a relationship with Christ! In order for God’s love and Christ’s love to be your love, you need to have a relationship with Christ. I’m sure this is nothing new for any of you who are reading this blog. But let me tell you anyway! For you to measure and know and contain God’s love: you need to have Christ at the centre of your life; you need to live for him; you need to spend time with him every day in prayer; you need to read and study God’s Word in daily devotions, and in the company of other believers; you need to worship God every Sunday. And, as you find yourselves being drawn closer to him, you will also find yourselves growing in his love—in his love which is so wide and long and high and deep.
In most congregations today, we struggle to make ends meet. It’s a perpetual challenge to pay the bills, and maintain the building, and meet our other obligations. But I want you to notice that Paul does not pray about buildings and payrolls and money concerns. His concern goes much deeper than that. Paul’s first concern is that the church be a place where God’s love is measured and known and contained. And if we can accomplish that—well, my friends, I believe that the Lord will take care of everything else. Thanks be to God. Amen.