In these verses, we reach the pinnacle of Paul’s prayer for the saints in Ephesus, and, indeed, the pinnacle and climax of all Christian experience. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in one of his sermons on this text, rightly said, “There is no more staggering statement in the whole range of Scripture than this.” It is something we could not dare to pray for were it not in Scripture itself. It is this: “that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” That is what Paul is ultimately praying for. The reason they needed to be strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man was so that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith, so that, being rooted and grounded in love, they might be able to comprehend the love of Christ so that they would be filled with God’s fullness. It all leads to that.
Now it is important to see that the culmination of this prayer really explains what it means to be filled with all the fullness of God. The structure of Paul’s thought here requires that it be explained by knowing the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. That is how we are filled with all the fullness of God. Recall that to the Colossians, Paul would write of Christ, “For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him” (Col. 2:9-10). The only way for us to be filled with all the fullness of God is to know most fully the love of Christ in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. The climax of spiritual experience is to know and experience as much as humanly possible the love Christ for us. Which goes to show that many of us have very little knowledge of the love of Christ.
One way to put this is to say that the apostle is praying that the believers to whom he is writing would discover and experience God in ways that they had not up to that point. Surely there is no greater goal for which we should strive. God made us to do this. He put us on this planet so that we should seek him and find him, as the apostle put it to the philosophers in Athens (cf. Acts 17). It is the reason for which Christ died. He died to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18). The forgiveness of sins is an important accomplishment of the death of Christ, but it is subservient to this greatest of all ends, to bring us into the fellowship and presence of the living God. And it is this in all its fullness for which the apostle is ultimately praying for here.
And yet, so many, even in the church, are left uninterested in the prospect of being filled with all the fullness of God. Why? I think one reason is to be found in the fact that we live in an age where technological discovery is proceeding at a lightening pace. Our world is opening up to wondrous technological marvels that just a generation ago would have seemed like science fiction. And it is easy to get sucked into the vortex of excitement generated by such discovery. There are many who would look at what they doing and experiencing due to such scientific advancements, and look on this passage and wonder what the relevance of it all is. They are not interested in discovering God. They would rather discover the next step towards quantum computing.
In fact, a lot of people would go further. They would say that there is nothing interesting about finding God. God is just for the weak-minded, they would say. They look at themselves and think they are too sophisticated for God. God is boring, uninteresting, and a fable to boot.
Now I grant that if God is a fable, then there is nothing in fact to discover. But if we proceed upon the assumption that he is real (an assumption which can be backed by many solid arguments and evidences), then it is manifest folly to think that pursuing the next technological marvel is more interesting or more important than pursuing the knowledge of God. Every scientific discovery is but a discovery of something in a universe that God created. So, if we consider it from that point of view, then what they are doing is at least several levels down from the discovery of the God of the universe itself. I’m not saying what they are doing is not important. I’m just saying that it’s not anywhere nearly as important or exciting as the discovery of the God who gave the human mind the propensity for discovery and innovation and who gave us a universe which can be harnessed to the service of human advancement through scientific endeavor.
To pursue human advancement apart from the knowledge and service of God is to build a Tower of Babel. It may be impressive, but it is doomed to failure in the end.
But this is not the only reason people put off seeking the presence of God. Another reason why people think that the discovery of God is uninteresting is because they think they know all there is to know about God. There is this notion that the knowledge of God is elementary, something which is limited to a few doctrines. You read your Bible a few times, a couple of systematic theologies, and you’re done. Moving on!
But the apostle’s prayer here shows us that this view of the knowledge of God is clearly insufficient. It is stupid to assume that we know all there is to know about the fullness of God! He is infinite, and I am finite. There is simply no way a finite human being could know or experience all there is about God in a finite amount of time. The apostle himself interrupts such a line of thinking in these verses. In verse 19, he talks about knowing the love of Christ, “which passeth knowledge.” He is not saying that the love of Christ is unknowable since he is praying that they might “know the love of Christ.” Rather, he is saying that we can never exhaust the riches of the love of Christ for us (cf. 3:8). No matter how much we know about the love of Christ, there are still dimensions to his love which we still have yet to discover. The love of Christ is infinite, and it surpasses our ability to comprehend it completely. The saints will spend the rest of their lives and eternity exploring the vastness of Christ’s love for them.
I think people also make this mistake because they fail to realize that there are two levels upon which we proceed in our knowledge of God. One is intellectual, and the other is experiential. It is agreed by the commentators upon these verses that they word Paul uses for knowledge here encompasses both the intellectual and the experiential components. Now those who think they have exhausted the knowledge of the fullness of God and the love of Christ, only approach this on an intellectual level. Of course they are wrong even here; there is no way we can exhaust even the knowledge of the love of Christ even on this level. Again, we are dealing with the fullness of God here; a finite mind cannot completely grasp the infinite. Those who think God is boring simply fail to come to terms with the reality of the infinity of God.
But there is also this experiential aspect to the love of Christ and the fullness of God. You can know a lot of doctrine about God and the love of Christ and yet know nothing of experiencing the richness of fellowship with the living God. Here is the test for those who think God is boring. If they think that, it is because they have never really experienced God. It is because they know nothing of the love of Christ. Knowing the love of Christ turned the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul. It takes ordinary people and motivates them to love others even when they are being persecuted by the people to whom they are showing love. The love of Christ constrains them, it controls them. It causes them to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Pet. 1:8). The saints will spend all eternity exploring the vastness of the dimensions of Christ’s love for his people. And so we cannot say that we know all there is to know about the love of Christ and the fullness of God. The fact of the matter is that we know little of what we ought to know, even here.
Another reason why people find discovering the fullness of God to be uninteresting is because they think it is unpractical. There is this idea that to be a top-of-the-line Christian, you must be an activist. You must be doing something, achieving something. On the other hand, they think that those who spend their lives pursuing an experience of the love of Christ are selfish and impractical and unhelpful. Their focus is not upon a doctrinal knowledge of Christ’s love to them, or an experience of Christ’s love for them, but upon doing something for Christ.
Now there is something true in this perspective. We don’t want to become Christians who just sit on their hands. But we are in danger when we think that developing a real, experiential knowledge of the love of Christ for us is impractical. Both Scripture and church history tell us exactly the opposite. If you really want to be useful in the kingdom of God, you must first revel in the love of Christ to you. For the chief mission of the church is to share the love of Christ. But how can we do this if we ourselves don’t know it very well? To use an expression the Lloyd-Jones used, the danger is that we become advocates for the gospel and not witnesses to the gospel.
Moreover, it is going to be hard to do real ministry in an unloving world if you are not empowered by a love that is not tied to this world. Only the love of Christ can keep us going when everything else is against us. It is what kept Paul going. He was not only persecuted by the unbelievers in his day, he was also persecuted by other church leaders! You see this in his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, and you also see it in the first chapter of his letter to the Philippians. How could he keep going when he had so much negative feedback? It was because the love of Christ constrained him (2 Co. 5:14). If you want to know the secret of Paul’s ministry, it was that he knew and experienced what he here prays for the Ephesians.
I do want to push back on this idea that doing, doing, doing is the key to a successful Christian life and ministry. I don’t think I’m wrong to say that we live in a time where churches are doing a lot of things. There are a multitude of ministries out there. And yet look at our society. It is getting worse, not better. Why? Could it not be because so much of what the church does today is not empowered from the knowledge of the love of Christ but rather out of a desire to produce statistics? It seems unarguable that the church today is more interested in statistics than it is in really knowing Christ. And therein lies a great part of our problem.
There are many illustrations from church history to back up the fact that experiencing the fullness of God is essential to true usefulness in the kingdom of God. As just one example, consider D. L. Moody. There he was, preaching the gospel, but doing it, as he put it, as “a great hustler,” in the energy and power of the flesh. Then one day in 1871 as he was walking down Wall Street in New York, the power of God fell upon him in such a powerful way, that he had to go into a nearby house where he experienced such joy that “at last he had to ask God to withhold his hand, lest he die on the spot from very joy.” He pointed to that experience as a watershed event in his life, and although the sermons that he preached afterward weren’t any different from those before, they were accompanied by a power that led to the conversions of hundreds. The power of God, the fullness of God! Note that he didn’t do anything different in terms of external activity after as before. But there was a power that was present, a power that could only be explained in terms of his experience of God. We are so confident in our methods, that we forget about the God apart from whose power and enabling we can do nothing.
Now where are you and I at in terms of knowing this love of Christ and experiencing this fullness of God? Of course, if you are a Christian, you do know something of the love of Christ. But there is so much more that we could experience, and the more we experience it the more we will realize how little we actually know. One of the reasons why I pursued graduate school in mathematics is because when I finished my undergraduate degree, I looked at all my books and they almost all had the words, “Elementary” or “Introduction to…” in their titles. I realized that even though I had obtained a bachelor’s degree, I still had only been introduced to mathematics! So I realized that if I really wanted to know what mathematics was all about, I had to go on. The problem is that by the time I finished graduate school I realized that I still was only scratching the surface. In fact, I have a book in my office with the title, Advanced Linear Algebra, but which opens with the words, “This book is a thorough introduction to linear algebra.” So even advanced books in mathematics can only claim to be thorough introductions! If this is true in mathematics, it is even truer in theology and the knowledge of God. None of us can really claim to have gotten beyond an introduction to the knowledge of God. And yet, for those who go on, there are riches that make the journey more than worth it.
Edward Payson puts all this in a way that I think is very helpful and instructive. He describes classes of believers who are ranged in concentric circles about Christ:
Suppose professors of religion to be ranged in different concentric circles around Christ as their common centre. Some value the presence of their Saviour so highly that they cannot bear to be at any remove from Him. Even their work they will bring up and do it in the light of His countenance, and while engaged in it will be seen constantly raising their eyes to Him as if fearful of losing one beam of His light.
Others, who, to be sure, would not be content to live out of His presence, are yet less wholly absorbed by it than these, and may be a little further off, engaged here and there in their various callings, their eyes generally upon their work, but often looking up for the light which they love.
A third class, beyond these but yet within the life-giving rays, includes a doubtful multitude, many of whom are so much engaged in their worldly schemes that they may be seen standing sideways to Christ, looking mostly the other way, and only now and then turning their faces towards the light. And yet further out, among the last scattered rays, so distant that it is often doubtful whether they come at all within their influence, is a mixed assemblage of busy ones, some with their backs wholly turned upon the sun, and most of them so careful and troubled about their many things as to spend but little time for their Saviour.
I think this is a very accurate way of putting it. The point is that we are on one of these concentric circles, closer or further away from the center who is Christ. The goal for every Christian is to move toward to the center. That is what Paul is essentially praying for here. He wants them to be so close to Christ that everything in their life and work and play is flavored by their relationship to him, and they don’t want to do anything that would endanger their nearness to Christ.
Now I like the way Payson describes those who are removed from the center. The further out you go, the more interested in engulfed you are by the things of this world to the exclusion of Christ. The less the rays of Christ’s love enflame you, the less you are interested in your relationship to him. The closer you get, the more you want of his presence and nearness, the more you want to know of his love.
So in evaluating ourselves, we need to pause and ask ourselves, “How attracted am I to the love of Christ? How constant is my affection for him?” As with gravity, distance affects the attraction we feel towards our Lord. The closer we are to him, the more we want to move towards him, the more we want to know of him and his love toward us, the more we want to experience the fullness of God. Whereas, the further out we are, the less we will tend to be attracted by the gospel and its glories.
Another way to put this is that we are on a continuum between two poles. At one end is Christ and at the other end is an idol of some form. For different people the idol may be different. But the battle that is being fought in this prayer is the battle against idolatry. It is the fight to move away from the idol and towards Christ. The more you know of the love of Christ, the less you are going to be interested in the idol. The more you are filled with the fullness of God, the less room there is going to be in your heart for that idol.
The closer we move toward Christ, the more we will realize that every idol is but a shadow of Christ and therefore less desirable than Christ himself. Most idols are gifts that God gives that we then put in the place of God. Pleasure, power, fame, money: these can all be legitimate gifts that can enrich our lives. The problem is that we begin to look to pleasure or power or fame or money to give us what only God can give. We also tend to give to the gifts what only God deserves: worship and affection and devotion and love. They cannot gives us what only God can give and we should not give to them what only God deserves.
It’s like exalting a sun beam over the sun itself. The sun beam is great. It is what makes flowers grow. It’s what gives us warmth. But the sun beam would not exist without a sun. To praise the sun beam while ignoring the sun is stupid. Even so, when we put God’s gifts in God’s place, we are praising the sun beam and forgetting about the sun. Clearly, the sun is greater and more important the beam of light it emits. And in the same way, God is infinitely exalted and above his gifts. It is folly when we idolize the sun beam. The Giver is greater than any of his gifts.
How do we get there? How do we move towards the Center? To be completely honest, I do feel like I am preaching more as an advocate here than as a witness. I don’t feel like I’ve experienced the fullness of God anywhere nearly as I should. But I want to get there. And we should be encouraged in our journey, if we are related to Christ. Because the apostle prays that they “may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ.” This is not something that is out of reach except only for a few super-saints. It is for all the saints, for every believer, for anyone who knows Christ.
We ought to be intensely thankful that our Lord has not put this on a level that only few can reach. This is one of the glories of the Christian religion. It is not reserved only for the intellectuals. It is not reserved only for the wealthy. It is open to all who know Christ, no matter their IQ or their status in society. Our Lord himself said, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Mt. 11:25). It is not only there for you, but our Lord himself wants you to experience the fullness of God in his love. He stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20). There is no reason, beyond those of our own making, why we cannot attain to what the apostle prays for here.
However, it is not automatic. When my wife and I were in Colorado several years ago, we stopped by this mountain and near the top of it you could see little people ascending to the peak. I decided that I wanted to do this, and so I set off. However, I was not exactly in shape, nor were my lungs conditioned for the rarified air at that elevation. At some point I had to give up and turn back. In the same way, many of us are spiritually out of shape. That doesn’t mean we can’t ascend to the peak and behold the majesty of Christ’s love for us; it just means that there has to be some conditioning for us to be able to ascend to the top.
What are some of the things we must do? Well, first, we have to want it. If we want our idol more than Christ, we are going to stay away from the Center. God does not reward those who do not seek him diligently, with the whole heart. The prophet put it, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Our Lord compares seeking him with a man who sells all that he has to have a field for the treasure buried within it, or to a merchant who sells everything to obtain that one pearl of great price. Do we want the Lord that much? It is the only way we will find him.
Unfortunately, even if we are aware of our need, we are often also simultaneously aware of a lack of desire. We feel the pull of the idol even as we reach for the Center. It is here that prayer is so important. We must pray. We must pray for it when we feel like we want it and we must pray for it when we don’t feel like we want it. God hears prayer, and it is not for no reason that Paul puts this in a prayer for the Ephesians.
And then, we must repent of our idols. If we are aware that we are putting something in the place of Christ, we must do what it takes to repent of this. John’s first epistle begins with an invitation to the fellowship of God, which is what the apostle Paul is essentially praying for in this prayer. It is therefore instructive that John ends with this exhortation: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). If we want this fellowship with God, if we want to experience the fullness of God and the love of Christ, then we must keep ourselves from idols.
Further, since this is all centered on Christ, we must constantly remind ourselves of the gospel and what Christ has done for us. This is not something we do just on Christmas or during certain seasons of the year, but every day of every year. It is only when Christ dwells in our hearts by faith that we will be able to comprehend the dimensions of his love for us and be filled with all the fullness of God.
So as we come to the end of this year and look forward to a new year, let us resolve with the apostle in this prayer, to go on through Christ our Lord and Savior, to know more of his love for us and to be filled with all the fullness of God. Surely there is no greater resolution for a Christian to have. In some sense, any New Year’s resolution should be subservient to this one. May the Lord make it so for us in the year to come.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, p. 278.
 Quoted in Lloyd-Jones, p. 242-243.