How can you understand the love of God if you yourself are an unloving person? It would seem that only a loving heart could receive the offers of God’s love. It is reasonable to suppose that a heart that channels all the affections back toward the self would have a difficult time comprehending how the heart of someone else would want to channel affection outwards. The ruts created in the heart through constant self-centeredness are sometimes too deep to jump out of and into paths of selflessness.
It is for this reason that the apostle now prays that his readers would be “rooted and grounded in love.” This prayer precedes Paul’s desire that they would be able to comprehend the dimensions of the love of Christ (18-19). This indicates that the request in verse 17 is not that they would be rooted and grounded in God’s love to them (which is expressed in the following verse) but that they would be rooted in grounded in their love to God and their fellow man. But they must be rooted and grounded in their love to others (and, above all, to God) in order to have the kind of heart that would be able to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the knowledge of the love of Christ to them. Verse 17 makes verse 18 possible.
The apostle is expressing the fact that love is fundamental to living out the Christian life. He does so by using two metaphors, one from agriculture and one from architecture: “rooted and grounded.” The thing that roots and foundations have in common is that they both provide stability and durability to the structures they support, so it seems likely that the apostle has this in mind when praying that they would be rooted and grounded in love. A tree with shallow roots will be easily uprooted, but a tree with roots that go down deep into the ground will not be knocked over even by a strong wind. In the same way, a building that is anchored upon a strong foundation will not collapse, whereas one without a foundation or a flimsy foundation is always in danger of collapse. I am told that one of the reasons why there are so many skyscrapers in Manhattan is because Manhattan is basically sold rock. It is perfectly suited for the many tall buildings it supports. Each building is rooted and grounded, stable and durable.
Our Lord himself used this analogy in the Sermon on the Mount. He talks about those who build their house upon a rock, “and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock” (Mt. 7:25). Whereas those who built their houses upon the sand, without a strong foundation, fell, “and great was the fall of it” (27). Thus, to be rooted and grounded in love means that love keeps us from being blown over by every blast of hate and meanness and bitterness that pummel us as we go through this world. In other words, love gives the saint staying power in this world. This is, in fact, one of the things that Paul says about love in 1 Cor. 13: “Love is patient . . . Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4, 7-8, ESV).
Now I think it is appropriate at this point to observe that if love has this quality, then love is very different from the kind of sappy sentimentalism that is so often smuggled in as if it were love. The kind of love that is portrayed on TV and in movies and books is not the kind of love that Paul is praying for here. That kind of love is easily toppled the first time the winds of lust start blowing in another direction. Lust is not love. Lust is the chaff of which love is the wheat. And though I wouldn’t want to divorce desire from love, yet we must be careful that we don’t mistake every strong desire for what the apostle is praying for here. Biblical love is something much deeper and long-lasting than mere whim and desire. It is something that defines you and propels you and keeps you going when everything else is against you. Paul described his love to Christ is this way: “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Or, as the ESV puts it, “the love of Christ controls us.” It did so in the face of immeasurable difficulties and opposition. It kept Paul going. Mere desire won’t do that. Desire on its own doesn’t have roots. Love, real love, sends its roots down into the heart and will and affections and will keep you grounded in the face of hostility and failure and opposition. It won’t be moved when everything around it is.
I think the clearest expression of this is the mission of the Son of God into the world. What propelled the Son of God into the world to save a world of sinners in rebellion against him? It could not have been some wonderful feeling that did this. Nice feelings alone don’t withstand the brunt of Gethsemane and Golgotha. What was it then? Was it not love? And is that not the gospel? “For God so love the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). The meaning of Christmas can only be understood against the backdrop of the love of God: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Our Lord, Jesus Christ, willingly chose to forfeit the privileges of deity for a time in order to come into a very hostile world in order to save a thankless, rebellious people. It was love that did that. “And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor” (Eph. 5:2).
As Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:2 indicate, it is this kind of love that we are to emulate and imitate, and it is this kind of love for which he is praying in Ephesians 3:17. Love is something that causes us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of someone else. Love is something that causes us to keep doing good to others when there is no immediate return for our love.
So we see that this is important, because not only does being rooted and grounded in love enable us to receive further revelations of God’s love to us, but also because it enables us to persevere in the faith. It enables us to “not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9). And perseverance is important. We are warned again and again against apostasy. And apostasy is necessarily linked to a failure to maintain a loving heart: “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But [in contrast to those whose love has grown cold] he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved” (Mt. 24:12-13). I don’t think it is for no reason that our Lord later rebukes this very church of Ephesus, “because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev. 2:4). Then, a few verses later, he exhorts them to perseverance: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit sayeth unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (7). Those who leave their first love will later leave the faith.
Of course, it’s not that we stop loving altogether when we stop persevering in the faith. We are creatures of love. We will love something. But if God is not at the top of that list, and if we do not love our fellow man as we love ourselves, then our love will be warped and aimed in the wrong direction. In fact, this is precisely why Demas failed to make it to the end (as far as we know): “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10). So Paul is not praying that they will just love anything. That’s a given. Paul is not praying that they will end up like Demas. He wants them to persevere. He wants them to have the kind of love that roots and grounds them against apostasy.
So let’s remind ourselves what this love looks like.
First, this love is rooted in love to Christ. In other words, the primary object of love is God. That is why the first part of verse 17 comes before the second part of verse 17: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love.” It is as we treasure Christ in our heart through faith that love to Christ sends its roots down deep into our hearts and steadies us as we grow in grace. Of course, love to Christ is inseparable from love to the Father and the Spirit. To love the Son is to love the Father. And so, the love that Paul is praying for here is love to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. Note that all three Persons show up in this prayer. Paul is praying to the Father (14) to send his Spirit (16) to strengthen the saints in order that the Son (17) might be at home in their hearts. This is a Trinitarian prayer and it shows us that all true religion is Trinitarian at heart. If we want to be rooted and grounded in love, we must be rooted and grounded first of all in love to God.
This is the center of all true religion. Recall that in answering the question, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” our Lord answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Mt. 22:36-38). You cannot please God, you cannot follow Christ, and you cannot walk in the power of the Holy Spirit if you do not first and foremost love the God of the Bible.
Of all the things or people we could place our love upon, God is most worthy of your love. The very existence of love depends upon the nature of God as love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:7). Every good thing we have ever experienced or will experience in this age and in the age to come is a gift from the mercy and goodness of God. The loveliness and beauty of any good thing, or the attribute of any good thing that calls out love from the heart, is owing ultimately to God who is the source of all beauty and loveliness. Of course, we do owe love to God. He is the creator and we are his creatures. It is a fundamental right that we owe to him. But it is not only right that we do it, it is also fitting that we do it. It is for our eternal good and joy that we give God our ultimate allegiance and the love of our hearts. To withhold love from God is to commit spiritual suicide. To love him brings everlasting healing and joy to the soul and heart.
And especially for those of us who claim to be redeemed by the blood of Christ, how can we not love him? How can we not love the One who shed his blood for us, who left his riches to be impoverished in our nature and to suffer for us who were once his enemies? How can we not love him who has enriched us with every spiritual blessing and has given us good hope through grace? How can we know the fellowship of Jesus Christ and not give him the love of our hearts? There is nothing and no one to be loved compared to Jesus Christ. Even heaven, with all its wonders and joys and blessings, is nothing compared to Christ. Heaven is heaven because of Christ. He is the light that enriches and gives beauty to the New Jerusalem. He is worthy of the most earnest love of our hearts.
This love is therefore born out of fellowship with Christ. You cannot love someone you do not know. That is why having Christ at home in your heart comes before being rooted and grounded in love. It is important to realize that we are not talking about a merely theoretical association with Christ. We are talking about a relationship with him that draws out the love of your heart to him.
Second, we are not only to be rooted and grounded in love to God, but also in love to our neighbor (Mt. 22:39-40). You cannot love God without loving your neighbor. For the Christian, this especially applies to loving the brothers and sisters in Christ. As the apostle John puts it, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8). “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20).
It is the easiest thing in the world to talk about loving God. But the proof is how you treat others. How you treat your spouse. How you treat your children. How you treat your neighbor. How you treat your brothers and sisters in Christ. Do you love them? More to the point: would they say that you love them? We can croon about our love to others all we want, but if they don’t feel it and see it, then it’s very likely that we aren’t really loving them.
Third, this love demonstrates itself in selfless and sacrificial acts on the behalf of those it loves. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Love is giving. Love looks outward and away from the self. More importantly, when we love someone we identify with them in such a way that we seek for them exactly what we would want for ourselves, and are willing to deny ourselves of that good in order to secure it for them. This is exactly what Christ did for us on the cross. It was not good for him to die. But he died so that death would not have the final say over us. He died to give us abundant, eternal life. This is the kind of love for which the apostle is praying.
Going back to 1 Cor. 13, we see in every description of love how selfless it is. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (4-7, ESV). Every one of these descriptions can be illustrated in the life of our Savior. As we imitate him, we too become more loving.
And the reason we can do this is because love is rooted in love to God and in who Christ is and what he has done for us. I don’t think you can demonstrate the kind of love the apostle is praying for here apart from a relationship with Christ. The reason I can give myself for others is because Christ has already given me all that I need and I will lose nothing of the riches in Christ through sacrificing for others. I can give up a little temporary pleasure and comfort and security for someone else because what Christ has given me can never be taken away. If my hope is in the age to come then I ought to be able to deny myself in this age out of love for someone else. My treasure is never threatened by anything that is lost in this world, and therefore there is no need for me to fear losing anything out of love for others.
This is so important, it is the essential mark of the Christian. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (Jn. 13:35). We talk about the need for evangelism, but evangelism will never make a dent in our community if it is not accompanied by love. That is why I really believe that if we are to really make a difference in our community, it will only be done as we minister to people and show love to them in tangible ways. It is only then that their ears will be tuned to hear the notes of the gospel. Just shouting at people to repent and believe is not going to be very effective. Jesus not only preached the gospel, he healed their diseases. He fed them. He ministered to their bodies so that they would be able to receive the medicine for their souls. Love your neighbor; it is essential for the witness of the church.
It is also essential for the unity and community of the church. You simply cannot have harmony in the fellowship of believers if we don’t work hard at practicing love to each other. Don’t just love your brother or sister when it is easy. Do it when it is hard. Put in practice what the apostle Peter said: “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves [keep loving one another earnestly, ESV]: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Be earnest in your love to the brethren.
Listen to what the apostle tells the Philippian church: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every many on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:1-5). In other words, if we want to experience all the things he mentions in verse 1, we have to have the mind of Christ, we have to put others before ourselves. In other words, we have to be loving people.
Moreover, love is essential for the work and fruit of faith. Love is the environment in which the Christian life grows and prospers. It is why the apostle wrote, “Let all your things be done in charity” (1 Cor. 16:14). It is why he wrote, “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). Faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). It is the glue that ties everything together. It is that which sums up the law and fulfills it (Rom. 13:10).
Of course knowledge is important too. Some people go so overboard on love that they become unbalanced by untying love to the knowledge of God. But in doing so they undermine what the apostle is praying for here. He is not praying for some generic feeling of love for God. This love is itself rooted in an understanding of who God is. We must remember that the people Paul is praying for have a pretty good grasp of Biblical knowledge. They have just heard or read Ephesians 1-3, and these were probably not unfamiliar truths to them. The fact is that knowledge and love must go together. In fact, Paul would explicitly pray for this for the Philippians: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent” (Phil. 1:9-10).
Love with little knowledge will end up being shallow. But we must also beware of knowledge without love. It may be worse. As Lloyd-Jones argues in one of his sermons, one of the reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians was because they had exalted knowledge over love, and it had created all sorts of problems. Thus, in the preamble to his chapter on love, he writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3). All the religious knowledge and zeal in the world apart from love is nothing!
Let us love one another. Above all, let us love God. And may we be so rooted and grounded in that love, that it prepares us for greater knowledge of God and his love for us and make us more effective for the gospel of the kingdom.