The love of Christ is the topic for today’s message. As Dr. Tomlinson said last week, this semester is primarily focused on the horizontal aspects of Christian love. This message today… is not about the horizontal aspects of Christian love, but instead the very foundation of Christian love, the love that Christ has for his family that he has bought with his blood.
My hope is to weave in some of my own story in discovering the height, depth, breadth, width of the love of Christ and how precious this text is as we look closely together.
A number of years ago, I watched a dear friend die a traumatic death. After not sleeping for four days after that happened, my first dream was a nightmare, as was almost every dream after that, culminating three weeks later in what was to be the first panic attack I’d ever experienced, the most recent being three weeks ago on Friday. When they began, I wondered, I asked in my heart if not out loud: why Lord? Lord, do you love me? Lord, show me you love me.
For me, coming to realize the power of God at work in me in my weakness, and coming to know more deeply the love of Christ in my suffering, that nothing will separate me from the love of Christ, has meant everything, and that’s what this text is about today.
Now if you’re like me, you have a preparation sort of attitude. What’s the inevitabilities, what are the possibilities, and let’s prepare. So every year since that traumatic event, I have asked on January 1 as I write in my journal… what will this year hold? Will it be worse than the year before? Better? And what I’ve discovered may surprise you. What will 2020 hold for you? Will it be worse? Be better?
We’re not certain, but what is certain is that the expansive and expensive love of Christ will meet us and show us in deeper ways that we are loved as the bedrock for us loving God and others. This love of Christ is known existentially, in our hearts, and experientially, in our circumstances. That’s what I hope to show in this passage today.
Paul’s Prayer and the Father’s Power
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
For what reason? Verse 15 is a clue… he’s the God of every family in heaven and on earth. This recalls 1:10, and some of the content of chapter 2.
1:7–10 – 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
What’s in heaven? What’s on earth? Christ is uniting all things in himself. God reconciling through Christ all things. The focus of chapter 2 is a two-fold reconciliation… humanity to God in Christ, and humanity to each other in Christ.
Why does Paul think this is possible? First reason: God can reconcile humanity to himself in Christ.
Mankind, Jew and Gentile, can be reconciled, made at peace with God and brought into the family of God, all through Christ… we were dead, in trespasses and sins… every single one of you in this room. You were under the thrall, the dominion of Satan, to do his bidding in unbelief. How did that change?
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
No boasting, no pride, no works, nothing earned. No natural disposition, no human effort, no uncorrupted will. From beginning to end, hopeless. No one born here into life, all born into death, in Adam. So the only hope is a conversion. A movement from darkness to light. And how were you converted? God. God working. God moving. By grace, a gift, through faith, a gift, in Jesus Christ, a gift. An all gracious God gifting his children with… himself. This is reconciliation.
Why does Paul think this is possible? A second reason: God can reconcile Jew and Gentile in Christ.
Chapter two also has a second reconciliation… in light of the first one, where God has, by grace through faith, saved us for good works… he has gone about abolishing barriers that separate the ethnicities of the earth, including the prohibitions in the Old Testament between “clean” and “unlean”. In Christ, all become clean, all are sanctified, all will be glorified.
This is the point of the excursus, the interruption of Paul’s thought in 3:2–13: God has revealed this mystery in the person of Christ, that it wasn’t intended for Gentile to stay separate from Israel. Far from being a parenthesis in God’s plan to make his glory known, the church composed of Jew/Gentile is in Christ the plan.
This is the God who is reconciling Jew, Gentile, all creation to each other and to himself. The biggest barrier between fellowship between divisions on earth, the barrier between Jew and Gentile, is torn down in Christ. This is such a stunning mystery, one that Paul speaks to here, that he is utterly convinced that God can answer what he’s asking beginning in our passage in verse 14.
This is the God who accomplished his rescue mission for humanity in Christ. Our sin, poisoning the land, our hearts, all of creation, resulting in death of everything, didn’t have the final word. The Satan’s plan to lie and kill and plunder failed because of our God’s mighty hand to save. And he kept saving: he took the two people groups most at odds in history, Jews and Gentiles, and reconciled them to each other in Christ. The people of God that receive all the promises of God, the Gentiles have been brought into the fellowship enjoyed by believing Old Testament Israel… and both have been brought farther up and farther in.
In short, he is the one utterly capable of answering Paul’s prayer.
“For this reason”: because of who God is and what he’s completely capable of, Paul bows and prays to God who can answer in total. What is the prayer?
Paul’s Purpose, the Holy Spirit’s Strengthening, and Christ’s Love
16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Paul’s intent behind praying this way is a big one, he’s swinging for the fences: be strengthened so you can know what is ultimately beyond comprehension: the love of Christ. I think, indeed, that this is a love that encapsulates the love found in chapter 2… the reconciling love of God to man, and the power of God to unite mankind in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
There’s a lot here; hang tight as we unpack this.
First, Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to be strengthened for enabling by the Spirit.
Paul’s prayer is a preparatory one; he wants something to take place that will enable the true end goal of his prayer to happen. He wants the Ephesians to be strengthened, enabled, for the goal he has in mind.
The Spirit, present with believers because of the death, burial, resurrection, and reign of Christ, provides the power to live the Christian life. It is by the Spirit’s power that we are united to Christ through his resurrection. This is the same power that Paul talks about in another prayer in 1:19–20, he wants them to know:
19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
Utter dependence in God through his power in Christ, the same power that was on display when Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead! This is Paul’s prayer: he knows the Ephesians and we have no ability to draw near to God, to know Christ’s love, that they apart from God’s grace are dead. They and we need the Spirit’s enabling.
So that’s the first thing: be strengthened, be enabled by the Spirit. Let’s go further and press towards Paul’s goal in his prayer.
Second, Paul wants Christ to dwell in the Ephesians’ (and our) hearts through faith.
How will Paul’s prayer be answered? Christ will dwell in us by faith. To peel back and look a little more directly at the Greek, the two infinitives (be strengthened in vs 16 and Christ dwelling in us in vs 17) might be parallel to each other, but more likely this is a nested idea: “that he may grant you to be strengthened in the inner person so that, being strengthened, Christ may dwell in your hearts.”
This is possible by faith. The faith of the believer in Christ against the temptations of unbelief, and the indwelling Christ in the heart of the believer to sustain that faith, will lead to Paul’s prayer being answered. This is the strengthening that comes in the Christian life by faith, the contemplated, inward result of the Spirit’s work of strengthening. This is, in a word, the normal Christian life, that is absolutely stunning, and we shouldn’t think of as normal as equivalent to “natural”. This is supernatural in toto, completely reliant upon God and his power. This is the faith that we heard about in 2:8–10… it is the gift of God, by his sheer grace.
Do you know how maddening it is to a heart of unbelief to be totally reliant? it feels hopeless. And how freeing it is to a heart of faith to be totally reliant. It feels absolutely hope-filled to those who are in Christ. This is the different when suffering comes into my life compared to when I did not know Christ. The suffering has a purpose that I can’t see completely, but I trust that Christ sees the beginning and the end, and he will accomplish his purposes.
Third, Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to have strength to comprehend and know the love of Christ.
So being strengthened by the Spirit, with Christ dwelling in our hearts, with us being rooted and grounded in love… we are thus enabled to know Christ’s love. To put it another way, being rooted in the love of God through this indwelling of Christ is the pathway to further knowing the love of God. This is the purpose here in verse 18 isn’t immediately obvious… “in order that you, being rooted and grounded in love, might be able to comprehend with all the saints…”
Breadth, length, height, depth and the text doesn’t tell us of what? That should be our reaction: of what? Paul uses a similar phrase in Romans 8:39 when he tells us that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ; height and depth can’t do it. Nothing can. I think that’s the referent here, especially because of the next phrase: this is Christ’s expansive love!
How much does Christ love us? What’s the highest height, lowest depth, farthest distance? David uses this kind of language in Psalm 139. He can’t get away from God’s presence in the depths of Sheol or in the heights of heaven. But I think the better metaphor is that Christ’s love is stunning in its grandness. No one can comprehend it in total.
So when the rising panic comes in my chest, and that’s where I feel it first… I remember, whether the panic overwhelms me or not, Christ in me, the hope of glory. Christ for me, all the promises are mine. My suffering becomes a pathway to knowing more fully this truth.
Fourth and last, Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to be filled with the fullness of God.
Paul’s ultimate purpose is revealed: the purpose statements of verse 16 and 18 (that he might grant you to be strengthened and that you might comprehend Christ’s love) culminate in this. Be filled with the fullness of God.
In 1:23 this fullness points towards the church that is growing into the maturity of Christ. His power and moral perfection is being poured out into the church, such that we can know his love more fully and love like him. Being rooted and grounded in love, you can grow to know Christ’s love more and more. Not only being more like him, but coming into a greater realization of his presence that is ours by faith in Christ.
Paul’s Praise and God’s Glory
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
It is God who receives all the glory for this work in reconciling mankind to God and to each other in Christ. And notice this: you can’t comprehend the love of Christ, but you can know that he loves you increasingly. You won’t know his love fully, but you can know he loves you fully.
And not only you knowing and realizing this, but also you knowing and realizing that this is true in the church. Not you alone. In my suffering, I’ve struggled with loneliness. Do you want a place and a people where God’s promises are certain to be effectual? Realize that you are part of a church, it’s not just your select crew from your own demographic, and lean into the church.
This is what helped in my times of greatest felt need: the love of Christ on display in the church in my grief and suffering. You don’t know how people around you are suffering. Do you ask? Do you befriend? Do you listen? In doing so, the love of Christ is made known to them in a tangible, experiential way. This is glorious, and is one way that God helps make sense of and seasons us in our suffering.
Do you see the glory of the triune God here, being realized in new ways in your life, as faith conquers fear and unbelief? As the love of Christ is realized where it was doubted? As your spiritual muscles are flexed to take on more that God has for you? Paul prays to the Father, that the Spirit would empower you, to know that Christ (and God!) loves you. This will be your fuel for love back to God and for others.
The Father is able to do this completely, he who reconciled us to himself by means of his son’s own sacrifice, resurrection, and reign; he who reconciled Jew and Gentile to each other in his Son’s body, the church.
The Spirit is powerful to strengthen you that Christ may dwell in you by faith, that being rooted and grounded in love (because Christ is dwelling in you by faith!), that you might know the expansive and expensive love of Christ for you and thus be filled with the fullness of God.
The expansive love of Christ, that lays out grace ahead of us and behind us, wherever we go. The expensive love of Christ, that spared not his own life but instead covered to the uttermost all our sin, and supplied to the highest heaven every blessing that Jesus himself receives as God’s own Son…
How will you come to know that Christ’s love is expansive and expensive? You’ll know it existentially: in your heart, being filled with the fullness of God. The presence of God is deeper, more sure, more certain in my life because of and through the trauma of watching my friend die, because I realized further the expansive and expensive love of God in Christ through pain.
Will 2020 be hard for you? Harder than you’ve ever known? Maybe. But this is certain: the love of Christ that passes all understanding will still be on you, and as the Spirit works in you and as you experience new joys and new sorrows, your sense of Christ’s love will deepen in 2020 and will continue to do so. So if 2020 is worse, you can be assured that Christ will be with you and will show you more love than you can ask or think. The deeper the suffering, the deeper the love of God in Christ is known.
You may encounter new suffering, new hardships, new pain, new loss, and Christ will prove himself better, and prove his love for you again and again. This is the bedrock of our love for others, as Dr. Naselli talks in a few weeks about loving others with different political opinions, as David Mathis talks about bearing the fruit of the Spirit, love, as Dave Zuleger preaches on love inside the local church, as Sam Choi preaches on loving the lost, and all the other messages you’ll hear this semester, herein is the bedrock: Jesus Christ, slain, risen, ascended, reigning, so that the love, the power, and the presence of God is with you, come what may.