Ephesians 3:17-19 “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

This is obviously the language of devotion. Paul’s emotions or affections are caught up in the wonderful love of God. There is skilful repetition; the word ‘and’ occurs six times – the piling of one dimension on another, and that serves to build up the tension, and a reaching out to say in words concepts that seem to Paul almost indescribable and yet are of crucial importance. It is the language of prayer, more particularly of an apostle praying, but also God the Holy Spirit is bearing Paul along to say these very words. The passage comes to focus on the immeasurable love of Jesus Christ, and the privilege we have of knowing this love, of being earthed in it, and going on being filled with Christ’s love, to the measure of all the fulness of God.


Think of the Son of God, eternally and unchangeably divine, possessing all the attributes of God. Equally omnipotent, omnipresent, omnicompetent, omniscient – those great Latin-based words – as God the Father himself. Creator of the universe, but immeasurably mightier than the universe, so that it floats like one speck in his vision, one atom amongst a billion. Just one thought and he could annihilate the world. What is the universe in comparison to an infinite and glorious God? The Son of God was always with the Father. There never was a time when he didn’t exist, secure in the Father’s love, knowing the Father exhaustively and being known in the same way by the Father. He was utterly satisfied with the Father and the Spirit; he was dependent on nothing; he wasn’t lonely; he didn’t miss anything; he was simply God, the living God; God who is from eternity, the ‘in the beginning God . . .’ This is the one who loves his people.

This eternal Son of God becomes incarnate; is born of a woman; is bone of our bones; is made flesh; is contracted to the minutest span, impossible to see with the naked eye, only visible with one of those special medical microscopes. Then you could see on a monitor the result of the fertilisation of Mary’s egg when the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowed it; the cells are dividing and multiplying. The infinite has become finite; the eternal has entered time and become subject to it; the upholder of everything has become dependent; the almighty has become weak. God has become man. What must that have been like for the eternally dimensionless and invisible Son of God? Would it be like . . . our being buried alive in a coffin? What analogies can one use to consider this humbling of God to a man in the form of a servant? Think of an eagle trapped in a diving suit, or a jet pilot peddling a children’s plastic car, or a gold-medal athlete living in an iron lung, or a weight lifter hardly strong enough to raise a cup to his lips, or think of a professor having a stroke and having to learn to speak nursery rhymes again, or a millionaire trying to survive on the pennies he could pick up in the city streets, or the prodigal son of the farmer eating pig-food. I am only emphasising now what we call the ontological changes in the status of the Son, that is, the changes in his own being from being infinite God to a finite little man. He went to these depths because he loved us.

But you remember that the Son of God came into our low condition, that is, he wasn’t born of Eve in paradise before the fall of man. He was born after the fall into a world where everyone else was born in sin and shapen in iniquity. He had had the company of the Holy Spirit and his Righteous Father, and the innumerable ranks of the holy angels bright. His throne was a righteous throne. Now he came where the swearing was, where men abused women and children, where people stoned women to death for adultery, where they crucified men, leaving them hanging for days nailed to a cross until they were dead. It was into this world he came, where people drink iniquity like water, where men and women have no soundness in God’s sight but from the crown of their heads to the sole of their feet they seem to be quite covered in sores – that is how they appeared to Jesus. There wasn’t one righteous person with whom he could have fellowship, not his parents, nor his brothers with whom he shared his bed and board. He came into the closest proximity with sin without contracting it. He himself was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, so that he didn’t stand out in any way Nazareth or Galilee as the eternal holy one of Israel. He was found in fashion as a man, that is, he was indistinguishable in a crowd, whereas he had been the centre of heaven. He went to these depths because he loved us.

Then there came a day when they nailed him to a cross. Who is he on yonder tree dying in shame and agony? This is the only God there is, now manifested in the flesh. Here on Golgotha is God over all and blessed for ever, the brightness of God’s glory hangs in the darkness of Golgotha, the express image of his person, is even there reigning and upholding all things by the word of his power – from that central cross, rules the eternal Son of God. Who is dying there? The one who is also a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable yet united with the seed of Abraham, the one who thus is going to bless all nations. There Jesus was shedding human blood, blood that flowed through the veins of all us human beings in the world, but here it was the blood of the man who is God’s fellow. The pain he endured is that of the Word made flesh; it is the agony and bloody sweat of a man who is also God. That is the glory of it! God could not suffer. God could not die. God is a Spirit. It is the blood of the God-man which is being shed in his scourging and on the cross, and under the spear. The reason for the incarnation was that there might be a person with divine being and glory who could take the place of sinners, and pay an infinite price for their redemption, totally accomplishing their redemption. The blood he shed was the blood of the human nature, but of this one particular unique man who is also the eternal God. He hung there because he loved us.

What is he experiencing on Calvary? The wrath of men, their mockery and scorn. Yes, that is true but that is only half the tale. He is also experiencing the anathema of God, for he hangs there in God’s presence as one to whom has been imputed our sin. It has pleased the Lord to bruise him. The one made sin comes before the judgment of the God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all. Here is the Lamb of God; the one he has found in his own bosom, his beloved one. He is fully conscious, and, as someone has said, “sensitized with all the splendid purity of his moral humanity, his every nerve heightened by his perfection, his every pain exacerbated by the glory of his uncontaminated thinking, because here was mind and intellect and brain such as the world has never seen, all of them now in heaven accessions to his glory, but all of them then on Golgotha accentuations of his pain.” The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. That wrath is now focussed on the Son of God whom he loves. God is judging God for choosing to be made accountable for our sin. The rod of God the Father is smiting the back of God the Son. The hands of God the Father take the hammer and nail the hands of God the Son to the crossbar. Jesus’ Father is refusing to answer him when he cries. Why is that? Always the Son has had the Father to turn to, throughout eternity he has been there, and then through his life, at his every step he could turn to his Father for help. But now he calls and there’s no reply. The heavens are as brass. He is suffering as a murderer would suffer; as an atheist would suffer; as Judas would suffer; as all will suffer who keep the Son of God out of their life. Hellish judgment falls on Christ hour after hour, but he never asks that the anathema might end because he loved us so much.

There is yet more; he not only dies, he is dead. He experienced the rending asunder of the body and the soul, and so he breathes his last. The body is still warm, but it is dead, and then rigor mortis begins to set in. All electrical activity in his brain ceases. His blood stops moving though his veins and arteries and all the organs of his body. His spirit departs to the presence of God in heaven, but his body is de-nailed, taken down from the cruel cross and wrapped in grave-cloths and spices. It is buried in a sepulchre where no one was ever placed before. The Son of God tastes death. In him was life and the life was the light of men, and yet that life entered the valley of the shadow. He received the wages of sin. Jesus has experienced what Adam experienced east of Eden, and what all of us will one day experience. Richard Baxter wrote,

“Christ leads me through no darker rooms,
Than He went through before;
And he that by God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.”

We never go beyond his pain. Our darkness is never more intense than his, Our ‘Why?s’ are never more bewildered. Sometimes, when we have to ask, ‘Why me?’ part of his answer to us is ‘Me too.’ He knows our nature from the inside. He’s been where we are. He’s been in the darkness where there is no light. He can look down on our struggles, turn to the Father and say, ‘I know exactly how that student feels.’ The Lord Jesus even passes through death itself because he loved us.

There is more; there is resurrection. While his spirit as a man is in the presence of God for those days and nights, and his body as a man lies in the grave as the eternal Son of God he yet fills the heavens and the earth, and on the third day he reunites his spirit from heaven with his body that lies in the tomb. He is not resuscitated; he is resurrected. He is given a new body; it is still the body of a man; he walks and speaks and breathes and eats and drinks and is handled, but he no longer needs sustenance. His body is raised in glory and power and strength and honour, a body controlled and filled with the Holy Spirit. He no longer prays with strong cryings and tears. But it is still a man’s body. It is that body at this very moment. We know exactly where Jesus is today; he, as to his spirit, is in this fellowship of Christians at this moment, and he dealing with each and all of us; he as to his body is in the midst of the throne of God.

“A Man there is, a real Man,
With wounds still gaping wide,
From which rich streams of blood once ran,
In hands and feet, and side.” (Joseph Hart, 1712-68).

For the last two thousand years, and even for evermore, a man has been there at the heart of God, and it is Jesus Christ who is this man, and he is there because he loves us. That is the immeasurable affection of Christ. How wide! You cannot see the end of it. How long! It will last for ever and ever. How deep! In vain the first born seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine. How high! There is nothing that dwarfs the love of God in Jesus Christ; nothing can put it in the shade. It is the ultimate; it is the highest and greatest, and when you reach out and touch it you are touching Jesus. He is there high over all in heaven or earth or sky because he loves us.


Paul takes this for granted. The natural man will never understand what I’ve just been saying. He can understand Chinese, and calculus, and Chaucer, and computing science, and Chopin, and cantilever bridges, and coelacanths, and Cymraeg, and celery-growing, but Christ’s love he cannot grasp without divine power. It will all be foolishness to him. “God becoming incarnate? What folly! God the Son dying the death of the cross? It doesn’t make sense!” Only by the energy of God the Holy Spirit changing men inwardly, altering their values and understanding, can anyone grasp these truths and come to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge. You must divine illumination to see it; it is invisible to you without that gift of sight. The love of your nation and your language and your family and friends does not pass knowledge. It is a rational love, and an understandable love, but Christ’s love is unique and wholly apart. It is all loves excelling.

So Paul prays for the people of Ephesus as we pray for you, that God will have mercy on you and give you the power to understand what I’ve been talking about and be lost in wonder as a result. You understand what I am saying? A combination of your wits and the most brilliant communicator in the world are not going to inevitably result in your grasping the love of Christ. If we softened you up with half an hour of contemporary music, and got the group to sing in perfect harmony, and got the flutes and guitars and drums all tastefully playing until half of us were swaying with our hands in the air, and you got really in the mood, you still would not be able to perceive the love of Christ without a sovereign action of divine illumination. In fact you’d feel, through all such a build-up, that you were the target of religious manipulation. Or again, if I should give you a three volume set of works entitled, “The Love of Christ” in which this truth was set forth in the most scholarly and devout manner, and beautifully written to boot, yet without this divine power coming upon you and those words it would be as dry as reading the telephone directory. Only God can enable you to see the amazing love of Christ.

So Paul prays to God for him to do what men cannot do, that they might be granted “power” – what an extraordinary term! It is the word ‘dunamis’ in Greek, from which – you realise – we get our English word ‘dynamite.’ He is praying that they will given dynamite by God in order to grasp how much Christ loves them. Our indifference is so deeply rooted; the walls of opposition to Christ which are surrounding our souls are so high and thick; our determination to go on living our lives with ourselves in charge so fixed that God must come right up to us and insert a stick of dynamite at the foundation of our lives and light it. Only such power to grasp the mighty love of Christ.

Of course, that does not mean that our awakening has to be dramatic and explosive, though in many cases in the Acts of the Apostles it is – the 3000 on the day of Pentecost thought that their lives had been blown away by Peter’s preaching, and so was Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road, and so was the Philippian jailor. But that power can also work as quietly as electricity moving through a high voltage cable. Think of a couple of colleagues who meet in the office building each day; the man respects the woman and they work well together, and that is as far as the relationship goes. The woman loves the man deeply, but she has to hide it because he shows no sign of any reciprocative interest. Then one day something happens within him and he realises how fond he is of her. There are certain circumstances that spur this on. Maybe she is ill, and he realises how much he misses her. He goes to visit her out of the office and love blossoms. The awakening of love for Christ can be as gentle as that.

Don Carson talks of a time as a ten year old when he grew seriously ill and spent weeks in hospital. Then he returned home for slow convalescence for some months. One day he opened his eyes to find his mother sitting beside the bed quietly crying. “Why, Mum, you do love me,” he blurted out. Then the water works started to operate seriously, and she had to leave the bedroom. He had known of her love throughout his life. If you’d asked him whether his parents loved him he would have said, “Of course,” but this display of his mother’s tears at his sickbed had that profound experiential effect on him. He knew she loved him. There are certain times when we can be overwhelmed with the love of Christ, but it always takes divine power for these long dormant hearts to start loving him. No human manipulation can do it; it is a gift of grace. Bernard of Clairvaux, the author of the hymn, “Jesus Thou joy of loving hearts” describes this power coming upon a sinner’s life and changing him like this:

“But what to those who find?
Ah this, no tongue nor pen can show
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but his loved ones know.”

You will remember my telling you when I was ill in the hospital earlier this year how I tried to read a psalm and pray with an old Welsh Presbyterian minister one Lord’s Day morning, but I could hardly get through it. The words I read seemed so golden, their truths so glorious, that I broke down as I read them, and then as I tried to pray I sniffed and wept my way through the praying. How wonderful seemed the love of Christ to sinners and rebels such as ourselves. Pray that it won’t be through an illness or through suffering or through cruelty or pain that you will come to grasp the love of Christ, not that dynamite, but that simply and gently God’s power will work and that you’ll know it. Not by death or an earthquake or a blinding light on a journey, but gently like the brush of a butterfly’s wing on your face, and then you will come to see Christ’s love, but however you do come, may you come to grasp it for yourself. We are praying that you will, as Paul here prays for the Ephesians. Sinner, pray also for yourself! “Lord, show me the love of Christ! Help me to grasp how wide and broad and high and deep is this love that passes knowledge!”


Paul begins by speaking of ‘grasping’ the love of Christ, but then he goes on to long that they will ‘know’ this love (v.19). Many of you are aware that in the Bible to ‘know’ does not simply refer to awareness, that very often the idea of knowledge is much more affectionate rather than cognisant. For God, to know means to love. In Amos God speaks to the children of Israel and he reminds them that they only have been known by God of all the nations on the earth. Of course the Lord knows everything about everyone, the Babylonians and the Egyptians and the Assyrians, but he is speaking there in Amos of his special love for his people. You take the relationship of Adam with Eve; we are told that Adam knew his wife, and that is not intellectual knowledge, it is affectionate and passionate and loving knowledge.

So Paul is praying that they may “know this love that surpasses knowledge” (v.19), and he is looking for some reciprocation on their part to Christ’s love. He is not asking for intellectual knowledge, or a theological knowledge of Christ’s love but loving knowledge, doxological knowledge, passionate knowledge that makes them serve Christ and his kingdom both in living and dying; he wants them to be loving in return the one who was born and lived amongst men, and died and rose on the third day. He wants them to say, “We love him because he first loved us.” He wants them to cry, “Hallelujah, what a Saviour.” He wants them overwhelmed, to totter on the edge of the precipice of this love, almost falling over, to be weak at the knees at this love, crying, “How long . . . wide . . . deep . . . high!” He wants them to say, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Now some of you, who might well be Christians, but who don’t have today a strong assurance of this, are thinking as you listen, “I don’t believe I have any love for Christ.” I ask you very seriously to pause and consider how you can say something like that? Are you saying that you hate the Lord? That’s the opposite of love. You mumble, “No love in me for Christ,” so are you hating my Saviour? Are you hating the one who preached the beatitudes? Hating the one who prayed for those driving nails through his hands, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Do you hate him? What’s he ever done to you that makes you hate him? Hasn’t he been good to you all your life? Hasn’t he been good to your family? How can you hate him? You say, “Well, I don’t quite hate him.” So you are just lukewarm, are you? Here is this extraordinary person, and you don’t hate him. He spoke and the winds were calmed. No man every spoke like him. He has changed the lives of millions of people for the good, and the best you have for Jesus Christ is some lukewarm attitude. “No,” you say, “it is more than lukewarm, and I certainly don’t hate him, but I could love him more.” Right on! That’s why Paul is praying for you here.

Don’t you want the Lord as your Lord and Saviour? Don’t you desire the Lord? Don’t you believe that if you had him you’d be safe? You say that you don’t know if you know Christ, but you also think that if you did know him you’d be a Christian. Aren’t your best moments when you feel that you do love him? Don’t you think, “I’d love to know that Christ loves me and that I love him. I’d just like to be able to sing from my heart that children’s hymn, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.'” Don’t you wish that the matter were settled once and for all? You want to know that God has accepted you as his child so that you can say, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Sol 6:3).

Let me ask you again, Don’t you have a real fear of grieving the Lord? Isn’t that grief after sinning as big a factor as your falling into sin itself? You fear God’s displeasure, yes? I am saying that only if you love him can you fear grieving him. One fears only from love. Joseph said to Potiphar’s wife about her husband, “There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). It’s love for the Lord that makes you understand how awful it is to give him pain. Don’t you lament that you lack certainty that God hasn’t shown you his mercy? You hear others giving their testimonies and being baptized; aren’t you envious? Aren’t you? Don’t you secretly wish that you had the faith of others who confess with their lips that Jesus is their Saviour? Is there any other god you feel like this about? “Nobody,” you say, “only Jesus.” You don’t desire rank in the church do you? You don’t want to have some office or influence, do you? All you want is to know that Christ loves you. Isn’t that a hopeful sign?

If I said that you could receive the love of Christ today for the same price as the fees you are paying to be at university, or that if you could pay me five thousand then Christ’s love would be yours. Wouldn’t you take him at that price? You would then know God! You would have eternal life. You would know the forgiveness of your sins. You’d be able to look up into the face of God and call him your Father, genuinely and eternally. Wouldn’t you want to settle it now for five thousand pounds? Wouldn’t you want to go to the bank manager at the earliest possible appointment and arrange a loan? Imagine facing the future with Christ within you, and Christ alongside you, and Christ praying for you, and Christ caring for you day by day. What value can you put on something like that? You say, “I would give everything to know the love of Christ.” But it is only a deep hidden love for Christ that makes you feel like that. I am saying to you that you don’t lack a love for Christ. It’s the devil that makes you think it’s not there.

Ask God for the power to make you love his Son. God wants everyone to love his Son, and so he won’t tantalise you and play around with you. Don’t say that you tried, but nothing happened. How earnest were you? “Not very,” you say. You, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. If they ask you for some food you don’t give them a plate of slugs. How much more will your heavenly Father give the power of the Holy Spirit to those who ask. Not to those who agonise, and foam at the mouth, and roll on the floor, but who humbly and earnestly ask him for an empowering to know the love of Christ.


That is how Paul ends the prayer, “that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God” (v.19). It is a staggering request, maybe the most daring prayer in the entire New Testament. We have to say two or three things in order to make sense of it;

i] This is not a prayer directed at the eternal and incommunicable attributes of God, the things that make God alone God. No individual believer is going to be filled with all the fulness of the triune God. George Whitefield wasn’t filled with all the fulness of the infinite God. John Calvin wasn’t filled with all the that fulness of the God who is without beginning or end of days. John Murray wasn’t filled with all the unoriginated glories of God. None of us will ever be anything other than men, glorified men, yes; transfigured sinless men, yes; men changed into the image of Christ, yes; but men only for ever. Here is man, finite, limited, restricted, mortal. I hold his brain in the palm of my hands. It is a remarkable creation, but it is not infinite, nor is it immeasurable, nor will it ever be such. God is. He is Father, he is Son, and he is the Holy Spirit. He is boundless, exalted, measureless might. If he wills something it is done. I shall never be like that, even after a aeon in his very presence. So Paul is not praying that man might become God. There will always be the distinction between the Creator and the creature. and glorification does not destroy that.

ii] Even the moral and spiritual transformation to these dimensions envisaged by Paul – “filled to the measure of all the fulness of God” – are not going to be experienced by any isolated individual Christian, however great, but by the whole church of Christ. That is how this prayer is going to be answered. These words are a beloved theme of the apostle, especially in this letter to the Ephesians. Today he has told us that all grace and all virtue to an infinite degree is found in the Son of God. There is this vast reservoir in the heavenly Christ, all love is in him, all joy and peace, all longsuffering, goodness and patience; all faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Every virtue that we can name and others beyond our wit are found in him to a measureless degree. As he pours them out on the church, breaking the dams of heaven and letting them gush down in a mighty flow without a single restraint, deluging the world, then there would be not one drop less in heaven. The Son of God would not be impoverished in any way as a result. After a million years of such an outflow there would still be in the heavenly reserves all the measure of the fulness of God’s graces in Jesus Christ, as there still will be in a million, million years’ time. Here is divine fulness; eternal fulness; measureless fulness, and Paul is praying that all the people of God – the whole church – might be filled from this measure – “all the fulness of God.”

iii] What Paul is praying for is not an event; it is not some one-off experience that he is commending so that once a Christian has this he then becomes a “filled-with-all-the-fulness-of God Christian.” What Paul is praying for is this, that every single Christian might continually be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. Today you all have Christ in the offer of the gospel. You have Christ in the promise that he will come and indwell all who receive him. You have Christ as you meet with two or three in his name. You have Christ in the preaching, Christ at the table, Christ in the secret place. You have the Christ who promises never to leave you nor to forsake you. You already have this Christ, but now you want him more and more. Christ in the loneliness of old age. Christ in the disappointments of our pilgrimage. Christ in time of rejection. Christ in the periods of massive blessing. Christ in dying. You want the fulness of Christ more and more. That is what Paul is praying for, that your desires for the Son of God will never cease, that you will want him more and more and more, and receive his divine fulness more and more, that you will find him increasingly your refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble, that you will never think, let alone say, “Now I have all of Christ, so let me go on to other experiences and other blessings.” All blessings come through Christ alone.

I am not against heart warming moments. I am not a stranger to heart warming moments. They are part of human experience, and sometimes they occur in a Christian context. Sometimes a Christian will receive a special insight into the person of Christ, or a special assurance of Christ’s love for him. One Christian might have difficulty in knowing what year he was regenerated, but he will be surprised this year when he sings a hymn and finds such joy in it, or as he hears the preaching, or when he walks in a forest and becomes overwhelmed with the glories of his Saviour. Such experiences of God will always live on in his mind. These are the blessings of the normal Christian life, but he can no more live on such blessings that a wife can live on her husband’s kisses. He has to show his love for her in a whole life of tenderness and thoughtfulness, as she does for him.

Let the whole congregation go on being filled to this measure – not the measure of how the founders of the Calvinistic Methodists were filled, and not to the measure of the fulness of our great heroes, Luther and Whitefield and Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones – but filled to this measure, “all the fulness of God.” What fearful years lie before us. How unprepared our civilisation is for the testing times ahead. The Saviour has warned us that before he returns, “Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world” (Lk. 21:26). How will we ourselves stand in such evil days? Our hope for ministry and credibility in those times is that we are tapping the fulness of Christ and being filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. There is a living reality totally outside of ourselves. It is a source of courage and wisdom and peace, and in our depths we can apprehend its unfathomable depths, so that deep calleth out to deep. We apprehend it daily now, and in days when men will be crying for the hills to cover them we will be crying into the ears of a loving Saviour who is full of grace and truth. We are not searching for any heroes inside ourselves, and we urgently warn you to destroy that delusion. Look unto him and be saved. All the ends of the earth look! For he is God and there is none else.

I myself cannot get by alone, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I cannot cope but I have a great Saviour by whom I can. I don’t know if I have the resources, emotional, financial, educational, physical, to survive, but Christ has no such limitations. All fulness, with no exceptions at all, is found in him. He is never weak under pressure; he never reaches his breaking point; he is never weary or frustrated; he never has too much on his plate to help anyone else; he never says, “Sorry I can’t take on another Christian.” All the fulness of God is found in him, and he promises not simply to refresh our lips with a mercy drop or two. He will fill us! He will fill every part of us, our minds, our affections, our bodies, our imaginations, all will be constantly filled with the fulness of God. So we will attempt great things for God, and expect great things from God. We will not be in despair about the future of the 21st century Church because its Saviour and builder will complete the work he has begun in it. The gates of hell are frustrated before the fulness of God.

Let us then love the Saviour more and more.

26th September 2004 GEOFF THOMAS