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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ephesians 3

 

 

Verses 1-9

Chapter 12

THE SECRET OF THE AGES

Ephesians 3:1-9

Ephesians 3:2-13 are in form a parenthesis. They interrupt the prayer which appears to be commencing in the first verse and is not resumed until Ephesians 3:14. This intervening period is parenthetical, however, in appearance more than in reality. The matter it contains is so weighty, and so essential to the argument and structure of the epistle, that it is impossible to treat it as a mere aside. The writer intends, at the pause which occurs after the paragraph just concluded, [Ephesians 2:22] to interpose a few words of prayer before passing on to the next topic. But in the act of doing so, this subject of which his mind is full-viz., that of his own relation to God’s great purpose for mankind-forces itself upon him; and the prayer that was on his lips is pent up for a few moments longer until it flows forth again, in richer measure, in Ephesians 3:14-19.

Ephesians 3:3-14, this passage is an extreme instance of St. Paul’s amorphous style. His sentences are not composed; they are spun in a continuous thread, an endless chain of prepositional, participial, and relative adjuncts. They grow under our eyes like living things, putting forth new processes every moment, now in this and now in that direction. Within the main parenthesis we soon come upon another parenthesis including verses 3b and 4 (Ephesians 3:3-4) ("as I wrote afore," etc.); and at several points the grammatical connection is uncertain. In its general scope, this intricate sentence resolves itself into a statement of what God has wrought in the apostle toward the accomplishment of His great plan. It thus completes the exposition given already of that which, God wrought in Christ for the Church, and that which He has wrought through Christ in Gentile believers in the fulfilment of the same end, -

Ephesians 3:1-9 speak

(1) of the mystery itself-God’s gracious intention toward the human race, unknown in earlier times; and

(2) of the man to whom, above others, it was given to make known the secret.

I. The mystery is defined twice over. First, it consists in the fact that "in Christ Jesus through the gospel the Gentiles are co-heirs and coincorporate and co-partners in the promise" (Ephesians 3:6); and secondly, it is "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8). The latter phrase gathers to a point what is diversely expressed in the former.

Christ is, to St. Paul, the centre and the sum of the mysteries of Divine truth, of the whole enigma of existence. In the parallel epistle he calls Him "the mystery of God-in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden". [Colossians 2:2-3 : R.V} The mystery of God, discovered in Christ, was hidden out of the sight and reach of previous times. Now, by the preaching of the gospel, it is made the common property of mankind. {Colossians 1:25-28]

In close connection with these statements, St. Paul speaks there, as he does here, of his own heavy sufferings endured on this account and the joy they gave him. He is the instrument of a glorious purpose worthy of God; he is the mouthpiece of a revelation waiting to be spoken since the world began, that is addressed to all mankind and interests heaven along with earth. The greatness of his office is commensurate with the greatness of the truth given him to announce. The mystery, as we have said, consists in Christ. This we learned from Ephesians 1:4-5, and Ephesians 1:9-10. In Christ the Eternal lodged His purpose and laid His plans for the world. It is His fulness that the fulness of the times dispenses. The Old Testament, the reservoir of previous revelation, had Him for its close-kept secret, "held in silence through eternal times." [Romans 16:25-27] The drift of its prophecies, the focus of its converging lights, the veiled magnet towards which its spiritual indications pointed, was "Christ." He "was the spiritual rock that followed" Israel in its wanderings, from whose springs the people drank, as it answered to the touch of one and now another of the holy men of old. The revelation of Jesus Christ gives unity, substance, and meaning to the history of Israel, which is otherwise a pathway without goal, a problem without solution. Priest and prophet, law and sacrifice; the kingly Son of David and the suffering Servant of Jehovah; the Seed of the woman with bruised foot bruising the serpent’s head; the Lord whom His people seek, suddenly coming to His temple; the Stone hewn from the mountains without hands, that grows till it fills the earth-the manifold representations of Israel’s ideal, centre in the Lord Jesus Christ. The lines of the great figure drawn on the canvas of prophecy-disconnected as they seem and without a plan, giving rise to a thousand dreams and speculations-are filled out and drawn into shape and take life and substance in Him. They are found to be parts of a consistent whole, sketches and studies of this fragment or of that belonging to the consummate. Person and the comprehensive plan manifest in the revelation of Jesus Christ.

But while Christ gathers into Himself the accumulated wealth of former revelation, His fulness is not measured thereby or exhausted. He solves the problems of the past; He unseals the ancient mysteries. But He creates new and deeper problems, some explained in the continued teaching of His Spirit and His providence, others that remain, or emerge from time to time to tax the faith and understanding of His Church. There are the mysteries surrounding His own Person, with which the Greek Church struggled long- His eternal Sonship, His pre-incarnate relation to mankind and the creatures, the final outcome of the mediatorial reign and its subordination to the absolute sovereignty of God. These depths St. Paul sounded with his plummet; but he found them unfathomable. Theological science has explored and defined them, and illuminated them on many sides, but cannot reach to their inmost mystery. Then there is the problem of the atonement, with all the cognate difficulties touching the origin of sin, its heredity and its personal guilt, touching the adjustment of law and grace, the method of justification, the extent and efficacy of Christ’s redeeming work, touching the future destiny and eternal state of souls. Another class of questions largely occupies the minds of thoughtful men today. They are studying the relation of Christ and His Church to nature and the outward world, the bearings of Christian truth upon social conditions, the working of the Spirit of God in communities, and the place of man’s collective life in the progress and upbuilding of the kingdom of Christ.

For such inquiries the Spirit of wisdom and revelation is given to those who humbly seek His light. He is given afresh in every age. Out of Christ’s unsearchable riches ever-new resources are forthcoming at His Church’s need, new treasures lying hidden in the old for him who can extract them. But His riches, however far they are investigated, remain unsearchable, and inexhaustible however largely drawn upon. God’s ways may be traced further and further in each generation; they will remain to the end, as they were to the mind of Paul at the limit of his bold researches, "past finding out." The inspired apostle confesses himself a child in Divine learning: "We know in part," he says, "we prophesy in part." Oh the depths of "hidden wisdom" unimagined now, that are in store for us in Christ, "fore-ordained before the worlds unto our glory!"

The particular aspect of the mystery of Christ with which the apostle is concerned, is that of His relationship to the Gentile world. "The grace of God," he says in Ephesians 3:2, "was given me for you." Such is "the dispensation" in which God is now engaged. Upon this lavish and undreamed-of scale He is dealing forth salvation to men. St. Paul describes this revelation of God’s goodness to the Gentiles by three parallel but distinct terms in Ephesians 3:6. They "are fellow-heirs"-a word that carries us back to Ephesians 1:11-13, and assures the Gentile readers of their final redemption and heavenly glory. {See Galatians 3:7, Galatians 5:5, Romans 8:14-25, 1 Peter 1:4-5} They "are of the same body"-which sums up all that we have learnt from Ephesians 2:11-22. And they "are fellow-partakers of the promise"-receiving upon a footing of equal privilege with Jewish believers the gift of the Spirit and the blessings promised to Israel in the Messianic kingdom.

In virtue of the dispensation committed to him, St. Paul formally proclaims the incorporation of the Gentiles into the body of Christ, their investiture with the franchise of faith. The forgiveness of sins is theirs, the light of God’s smile, the breath of His Spirit, the worship and fellowship of His Church, the tasks and honours of His service. The incarnation of Christ is theirs; His life, teaching, and miracles; His cross is theirs; His resurrection and ascension, and His second coming, and the glories of His heavenly kingdom-all made their own on the bare condition of a penitent and obedient faith. The past is theirs-is ours, along with the "present and the future." The God of Israel is our God. Abraham is our father, though his sons after the flesh acknowledge us not. Their prophets prophesied of the grace that should come unto us. Their poets sing the songs of Zion to Gentile peoples in a hundred tongues. They lead our prayers and praises. In their words we find expression for our heart-griefs and joys. At the wedding-feast or by the grave-side, amidst "the multitude that keep holy day" and in "dry lands" where the soul thirsts for God’s ordinances, we carry the Psalmists with us and the teachers of Israel.

What a boundless wealth we Gentiles, taught by Jesus Christ, have discovered in the Jewish Bible! When will the Jewish people understand that their greatness is in Him, that the light which lightens the Gentiles is their true glory? When will they accept their part in the riches of which they have made all the world partakers? The mystery of our participation in their Christ has now been "revealed to the sons of men" long enough. Is it not time that they themselves should see it, that the veil should be lifted from the heart of Israel? The disclosure was in the first instance so astounding, so contrary to their cherished expectations, that one can scarcely wonder if it was at first rejected. But God, the King of the ages, has been asserting and re-asserting the fact in the course of history ever since. How vain to fight against Him! how useless to deny the victory of the Nazarene!

II. But there was in Israel an election of grace, -men of unveiled heart to whom the mystery of ages was disclosed. "The secret of Jehovah is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant." Such is the rule of revelation. To the like effect Christ said: "The pure in heart shall see God. He that willeth to do His will shall know of the doctrine."

The light of God’s universal love had come into the world; but where it fell on cold or impure hearts, it shone in vain. The mystery "was made manifest to His saints, " writes the apostle in Colossians 1:26. So in this passage: "revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit." The pure eye sees the true light. This was the condition which made it possible for Paul himself and his partners in the gospel to be the bearers of this august revelation. It needed sincere and devoted men, willing to be taught of God, willing to surrender every prejudice and the preconceptions of flesh and blood, in order to receive and convey to the world thoughts of God so much larger and loftier than the thoughts of men. To such men-true disciples, loyal at all costs to God and truth, holy and humble of heart-Jesus Christ gave His great commission and bade them "go and make disciples of all the nations."

The secret was further disclosed to Peter, when he was taught at the house of Cornelius "not to call any man common or unclean." He saw, and the Church of Jerusalem saw and confessed that God "gave the like gift" to uncircumcised Gentiles as to themselves and had "purified their hearts by faith." Many prophetic voices, unrecorded, confirmed this revelation. Of all this Paul is thinking here. It is to his predecessors in the knowledge of the truth rather than to himself that he refers when he speaks of "holy apostles and prophets" in Ephesians 3:5. His readers would naturally turn to them in coming to this plural expression. The original apostles of Jesus and witnesses of His truth first attested the doctrine of universal grace; and that they did so was a fact of vital importance to Paul and the Gentile Church. The significance of this fact is shown by the stress which is laid upon it and the prominence given to it in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. The apostle frequently alludes to revelations made to himself; he never claims that this chief matter was revealed personally to himself. It was an open secret when Saul entered the Church.

"Whereof," he says, in Ephesians 3:7, "I became minister"; again, "to me was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles Christ’s unsearchable riches." The leaders of the Jewish Christian Church knew well that their message was meant for all the world. But the abstract knowledge of a truth is one thing; the practical power to realise it is another. Until the new apostle came upon the field, there was no man ready for this great task and equal to it. It was at this crisis that Paul was raised up. Then "it pleased God to reveal His Son "in him, that he might" preach Him among the Gentiles." The effect of this summons upon Paul himself was overwhelming, and continued to be so till the end of life. The immense favour humbles him to the dust. He strains language, heaping comparative upon superlative, to describe his astonishment as the import of his mission unfolds itself: "To me, less than the least of all the saints, was this grace given." That Saul the Pharisee and the persecutor, the most unworthy and most unlikely of men, should be the chosen vessel to bear Christ’s riches to the Gentile world, how shall he sufficiently give thanks for this! how express his wonder at the unfathomable wisdom and goodness that the choice displays in the mind of God! But we can see well that this choice was precisely the fittest. A Hebrew of the Hebrews, steeped in Jewish traditions and glorying in his sacred ancestry, none knew better than the apostle Paul how rich were the treasures stored in the house of Abraham that he had to make over to the Gentiles. A true son of that house, he was the fittest to lead in the aliens, to show them its precious things and make them at home within its walls.

To himself the office was an unceasing delight. The universalism of the gospel-a commonplace of our modern rhetoric-had burst upon his mind in its unspoilt freshness and undimmed splendour. He is sailing out into an undiscovered ocean, with a boundless horizon. A new heaven and earth are opened to him in the revelation that the Gentiles are partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. He is entranced, as he writes, with the largeness of the Divine purpose, with the magnificent sweep and scope of the designs of grace. These verses give us the warm and genuine impression made upon the hearts of its first recipients by the disclosure of the universal destination of the gospel of Christ.

St. Paul’s work, in carrying out the dispensation of this mystery, was twofold. It was both external and internal. He was a "herald and apostle"; he was also "teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth". [1 Timothy 2:7] He had in the former capacity to carry the good tidings from one end to the other of the Roman empire, to spread it abroad as far as his feet could travel and his voice reach, and thus "to fulfil the gospel of Christ." But there was another, mental task, as necessary and still more difficult, which likewise fell to his lot. He had to think out the gospel. It was his office to unfold and apply it to the wants of a new world, to solve by its aid the problems that confronted him as evangelist and pastor, -questions that contained the seed and beginning of the intellectual difficulties of the Church in future times. He had to free the gospel from the swaddling-bands of Judaism, to emancipate the spirit from the letter of a mechanical and legal interpretation. On the other hand, he had equally to guard the truth as it is in Jesus from the dissolving influences of Gentile scepticism and theosophy. Fighting his way through fierce and incessant opposition on both sides, the apostle Paul led the mind of the Church onwards and guides it still in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God. These noble epistles are the fruit and record of St. Paul’s theological work. Through them he has left a deeper mark on the conscience of the world than any one man besides, except the Master of truth who was more than man. The apostle was not unaware of the vast influence he now possessed, and that must accrue to him in the future from the transcendent interest of the doctrines committed to his charge. There is no false modesty about this splendidly gifted man. It is his not only to "preach to the Gentiles the good news of Christ’s unsearchable riches"; but more than that, "to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery that has been hidden away from the ages in God who created all things." The great secret was out while Saul of Tarsus was still a persecutor and blasphemer. But as to the management and dispensation of the mystery, the practical handling of it, as to the mode and way in which God would convey and apply it to the world at large, and as to the bearings and consequences of this momentous truth, -the apostle Paul, and no one but he, had all this to expound and set in order. He was, in fact, the architect of Christian doctrine. Theologically, Peter and John himself were Paul’s debtors; and are included amongst the "all men" of Ephesians 3:9 (if this reading of the text is correct). St. John had, it is true, a more direct intuition into the mind of Christ and rose to an even loftier height of contemplation; but the labours and the logic of St. Paul provided the field into which he entered in his ripe old age spent at Ephesus. John, who absorbed and assimilated everything that belonged to Christ and found for everything its principle and centre in the Master of his youth-"the way, the truth, and the life"- passed through the school of Paul. With the rest, he learnt through the new apostle to see more perfectly "what is the dispensation of the mystery hidden from the ages in God."

Well persuaded is our apostle that all readers of this letter in the Asian towns, if they have not known it before, will now "perceive" his "understanding in the mystery of Christ." All ages have discerned it since. And the ages to come will measure its value better than we can do now.


Verses 10-13

Chapter 13

EARTH TEACHING HEAVEN

Ephesians 3:10-13

"The mystery hidden since the ages began, in God who created all things": so the last paragraph concluded. The added phrase "through Jesus Christ" is a comment of the pious reader, that has been incorporated in the received text; but it is wanting in the oldest copies, and is out of place. The apostle is not concerned with the prerogatives of Christ, but with the scope of the Christian economy. He is displaying the breadth and grandeur of the dispensation of grace, the infinite range of the Divine plans and operations of which it forms the centre. Its secret was cherished in the Eternal Mind. Its foundations are laid in the very basis of the world. And the disclosure of it now being made brings new light and wisdom to the powers of the celestial realms.

"There is nothing covered," said Jesus "which shall not be revealed, and hidden which shall not be known." The mysteries which God sets before His intelligent creatures are promises of knowledge; they are drafts, to be honoured in due time, upon the treasures of wisdom hidden in Christ. So this great secret of the destiny of the Gentile world was "from all ages hidden, in order that now through the Church it might be made known," and by its means God’s wisdom, to these sublime intelligences. This intention was a part of the "plan of the ages" formed in Christ (Ephesians 3:11). God designed by our redemption to bless higher races along with our own. The elder sons of God, those "morning stars" of creation, are schooled and instructed by what is transpiring here upon earth.

To some this will appear to be mere extravagance. They see in such expressions the marks of an unrestrained enthusiasm, of theological speculation pushed beyond its limits and unchecked by any just knowledge of the physical universe. This censure would be plausible and it might seem that the apostle had extended the mission of the gospel beyond its province, were it not for what he says in Ephesians 3:11 : This "purpose of the ages" God "made in the Christ, even Jesus our Lord." Jesus Christ links together angels and men. He draws after Him to earth the eyes of heaven. Christ’s coming to this world and identification with it unite to it enduringly the great worlds above us. The scenes enacted upon this planet and the events of its religious history have sent their shock through the universe. The incarnation of the Son of God gives to human life a boundless interest and significance. It is idle to oppose to this conviction the fact of the littleness of the terrestrial globe. Spiritual and physical magnitudes are incommensurable. You cannot measure a man’s soul by the size of his dwelling-house. Science teaches us that the most powerful forces may exist and operate within the narrowest space. A microscopic cell may contain the potential life of a world. If our earth is but a grain of sand to the astronomer, it has been the home of Godhead. It is the world for which God spared not to give His own Son! Here, then, lies the centre of the apostle’s thoughts in this paragraph: God’s all-comprehending purpose in Christ. The magnitude and completeness of this plan are indicated by the fact that it embraces in its purview the angelic powers and their enlightenment. So understanding it, our human faith gains confidence and courage (Ephesians 3:12-13).

I. The textual critics restore the definite article which later copyists had dropped before the word Christ in Ephesians 3:22. We have already remarked the frequency of "the Christ" in this epistle. Once besides this peculiar combination of the names of our Saviour occurs-in Colossians 2:6, where Lightfoot renders it the Christ, even Jesus the Lord. So it should be rendered in this place. St. Paul sets forth the purpose of "God who created all things." He is looking back through "the ages" during which the Divine plan was kept secret. God was all the time designing His work of mercy, pointing meanwhile the hopes of men by token and promise to the Coming One. The Messiah was the burden of those prophetic ages. That inscrutable Christ of the Old Testament, the veiled mystery of Jewish hope, stands manifested before us and challenges our faith in the glorious person of "Jesus our Lord." This singular turn of expression identifies the ideal and the real, the promise and fulfilment, the dream of Old Testament prophecy and the fact of New Testament history. For Jesus our Lord is the very Christ to whom the generations before His coming looked forward out of their twilight with wistful expectancy.

Not without meaning is He called "Jesus our Lord." The "principalities and powers" of the heavenly places are in our view (Ephesians 3:10). These potentates some of the Asian Christians were fain to worship. "See ye do it not," Paul seems to say. "Jesus, the Christ of God, is alone our Lord; not these. He is our Lord and theirs. [Ephesians 1:21-22] AS our Lord He commands their homage, and gives them lessons through His Church in God’s deep counsels." Everything that the apostle says tends to exalt our Redeemer and to enhance our confidence in Him. His position is central and supreme, in regard alike to the ages of time and the-powers of the universe. In His hand is the key to all mysteries. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning, middle, and end of God’s ways. He is the centre of Israel-Israel of the world and the human ages; while the world of men is bound through Him to the higher spheres of being, over which He too presides. There is a splendid intellectual courage, an incredible boldness and reach of thought in St. Paul’s conception of the sovereignty of Christ. Remember that He of whom these things are said, but thirty years before died a felon’s death in the sight of the Jewish people. It is not our Lord Jesus Christ, whose name is hallowed by the lips of millions and glorified by the triumphs of centuries upon centuries past, but the Nazarene with the obscurity of His life and the cruel shame of Calvary fresh in the recollection of all men. With what immense force had the facts of His glorification wrought upon men’s minds-His resurrection and ascension, the witness of His Spirit and the virtue of His gospel-for it to be possible to speak of Him thus, within a generation of His death! While "the foolishness of preaching" such a Christ and the weakness in which He was crucified were patent to all eyes, unrelieved by the influence of time and the glamour of success, how was it that the first believers raised Jesus to this limitless glory and dominion? It was through the conviction, certified by outward fact and inward experience, that "He liveth by the power of God." Thus Peter on the day of Pentecost: "By the right hand of God exalted, He has shed forth this which ye now see and hear." The resurrection from the dead, the demonstration of the Spirit, proved Jesus Christ to be that which He had claimed to be, the Saviour of men and the eternal Son of God.

The supremacy here assigned to Christ is a consequence of the exaltation described at the close of the first chapter. There we see the height, here the breadth and length of His dominion. If He is raised from the grave so high that all created powers and names are beneath His feet, we cannot wonder that the past ages were employed in preparing His way, that the basis of His throne lies in the foundation of the world.

II. The universe is one. There is a solidarity of rational and moral interests amongst all intelligences. Granting the existence of such beings as the angels of Scripture, we should expect them to be profoundly concerned in the redeeming work of Christ. They are the "watchers" and "holy ones" spoken of by the later Isaiah and Daniel, whom the Lord has "set upon the walls of Jerusalem" and who survey the affairs of nations. Such was "the angel who talked" with Zechariah in his vision, and whom the prophet overheard pleading for Jerusalem. In the Apocalypse, again, we find the angels acting as God’s unseen executive. We decline to believe that these superhuman creatures are nothing more than apocalyptic machinery, that they are creations of fancy employed to give a livelier aspect to spiritual truth. "Cannot I pray to my Father, and He shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?" So Jesus said, in the most solemn hour of His life. And who can forget His tender words concerning the little children, whose "angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven"?

The apostle Paul, who denounces "worship of the angels" in the fellow epistle to this, earnestly believed in their existence and their interest in human affairs. If he did not write the words of Hebrews 1:14, he certainly held that "they are ministering spirits sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation." Most clearly is their relationship to the Church affirmed by the words of the revealing angel to the apostle John: "I am a fellow-servant with thee and with thy brethren the prophets, and with them that keep the words of this book."

Christ’s service is the high school of wisdom for the universe. These princes of heaven win by their ministry to Christ and His Church a great reward. Their intelligence, however lofty its range, is finite. Their keen and burning intuition could not penetrate the mystery of God’s intentions toward this world. The revelations of the tatter days-the incarnation, the cross, the publication of the gospel, the outpouring of the Spirit-were full of surprises to the heavenly watchers. They sang at Bethlehem; they hid their faces and shrouded heaven in blackness at the sight of Calvary. They bent down with eager observation and searching thought "desiring to look into" the things made known to men, [1 Peter 1:12] -close and sympathetic students of the Church’s history. The apostle felt that there were other eyes bent upon him than those of his fellow-men, and that he was acting in a grander arena than the visible world. "We are a spectacle," he says, "to angels and to men." So he enjoins faithfulness on Timothy, and with Timothy on all who bear the charge of the gospel, "before God and Christ Jesus, and the elect angels." What is public opinion, what the applause or derision of the crowd, to him who lives and acts in the presence of these august spectators?

"Through the Church," we are told the angels of God are now having His "manifold wisdom made known" to them. It is not from the abstract scheme of salvation, from the theory or theology of the Church that they get this education, but through the living Church herself. The Saviour’s mission to earth created a problem for them, the development of which they follow with the most intense and sympathetic interest. With what solicitude they watch the conflict between good and evil and the varying progress of Christ’s kingdom amongst men! Many things, doubtless, that engage our attention and fill a large space in our Church records, are of little account with them; and much that passes in obscurity, names and deeds unchronicled by fame, are written in heaven and pondered in other spheres. No brave and true blow is struck in Christ’s battle but it has the admiration of these high spectators. No advance is made in character and habit, in Christian intelligence and efficiency and the application of the gospel to human need, but they notice and approve. When the cause of the Church and the salvation of mankind go forward, when righteousness and peace triumph, the morning stars sing together and the sons of God shout for joy. The joy that there is in the presence of the angels of God over the repenting sinner, is not the joy of sympathy or pity only; it is the delight of growing wisdom, of deepening insight into the ways of God, into the heart of the Father and the love that passes knowledge.

One would suppose, from what the apostle hints, that our world presents a problem unique in the kingdom of God, one which raises questions more complicated and crucial than have elsewhere arisen. The heavenly princedoms are learning through the Church "the manifold wisdom of God." His love, in its pure essence, those happy and godlike beings know. They have lived for ages in its unclouded light. His power and skill they may see displayed in proportions immensely grander than this puny globe of ours presents. God’s justice, it may be, and the thunders of His law have issued forth in other regions clothed with a splendour of which the scenes of Sinai were but a faint emblem. It is in the combination of the manifold principles of the Divine government that the peculiarity of the human problem appears to lie. The delicate and continuous balancing of forces in God’s plan of dealing with this world, the reconciliation of seeming incompatibilities, the issue found from positions of hopeless contradiction, the accord of goodness with severity, of inflexible rectitude and truth with fatherly compassion, afford to the greatest minds of heaven a spectacle and a study altogether wonderful. So amongst ourselves the child of a noble house, reared in cultured ease and shielded from moral peril, in visiting the homes of poverty in the crowded city, finds a new world opened to him, that can teach him Divine lessons if he has the heart to learn. His mind is awakened, his sympathies enriched. He hears the world’s true voice, "the still, sad music of humanity." He measures the heights and depths of man’s nature. A host of questions are thrust "upon him," whose urgency he had scarcely guessed; and wide ranges of truth are lighted up for him, which before were distant and unreal. The highest have ever to learn from the lowest in Christ’s school, the seeming-wise from the simple; even the pure and good, from contact with the fallen whom they seek to save.

And "the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places" are, it seems, willing to learn from those below them. As they traced the course of human history in those "eternal times" during which the mystery lay wrapped in silence, the angel watchers were too wise to play the sceptic, too cautious to criticise an unfinished plan and arraign a justice they could not yet understand. With a dignified patience they waited the uplifting of the curtain and the unravelling of the entangled plot. They looked for the coming of the Promised One. So in due time they witnessed and, for their reward, assisted in His manifestation. With the same docility these high sharers of our theological inquiries still wait to see the end of the Lord and to take their part in the denouement of the time-drama, in the revelation of the sons of God. Let us copy their long patience. God has not made us to mock us. "What thou knowest not now," said the great Revealer, the Master of all mysteries, to His disciple, "thou shalt know hereafter."

These wise elder brothers of ours, rich in the lore of eternity, foresee the things to come as we cannot do. They are far above the smoke and dust of the earthly conflict. The doubts that shake the strongest souls amongst us, the cries of the hour which confuse and deceive us, do not trouble them. They behold us in our weakness, our fears, and our divisions; but they also look on Him who "sits expecting till His enemies are made His footstool." They see how calmly He sits, how patiently expectant, while the sound of clashing arms and the rage and tumult of the peoples go up from the earth. They mark the steadiness with which through century after century, in spite of refluent waves, the tide of mercy rises, and still rises on the shores of earth. Thrones, systems, civilisations have gone down; one after another of the powers that strove to crush or to corrupt Christ’s Church has disappeared; and still the name of Jesus lives and spreads. It has traversed every continent and sea; it stands at the head of the living and moving forces of the world. Those who come nearest to the angelic point of view, and judge of the progress of things not by the froth upon the surface, but by the trend of the deeper currents, are the most confident for the future of our race. The kingdom of Satan will not fall without a struggle-a last struggle, perhaps more furious than any in the past-but it is doomed, and waning to its end. So far has the kingdom of Christ advanced, so mightily does the word of God grow and prevail in the earth, that faith may well assure itself of the promised triumph. Soon we shall shout "Alleluia! The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!"

III. Suddenly, according to his wont, the apostle drops down from the heights of contemplation to the level of ordinary fact. He descends in Ephesians 3:12 from the thought of the eternal purpose and the education of the angels to the struggling Church. The assurance of its life in the Spirit corresponds to the grandeur of that Divine order to which it belongs. "In whom," he says-in this Christ, the revealed mystery of ages past, the Teacher of angels and archangels" we have our freedom and confident access to God through faith in Him."

If it be "Jesus our Lord" to whom these attributes belong, and He is not ashamed of us, well may we draw near with confidence to the Father, unashamed in the presence of His holy angels. We have no need to be abashed, if we approach the Divine Majesty with a true faith in Christ. His name gives the sinner access to the holiest place. The cherubim sheathe their swords of flame. The heavenly warders at this passport open the golden gates. We "come unto Mount Sion, the city of the living God, and to an innumerable company of angels." Not one of these mightinesses and ancient peers of heaven, not Gabriel or Michael himself, would wish or dare to bar our entrance.

"We have boldness and access," says the apostle, as in Ephesians 1:7 : "We have redemption in His blood." He insists upon the conscious fact. This freedom of approach to God, this sonship of faith, is no hope or dream of what may be; it is a present reality, a filial cry heard in a multitude both of Gentile and Jewish hearts. {comp Ephesians 2:18}

This sentence exhibits the richness of synonyms characteristic of the epistle. There are boldness and access, confidence as well as faith. The three former terms Bengel nicely distinguishes: "libertatem oris in orando," and "admissionem in fiducia in re, et corde"-freedom of speech (in prayer), of status, and of feeling. The second word {as in Ephesians 2:18 and Romans 5:2} appears to be rather active than passive in its force, denoting admittance rather than access. So that while the former of the parallel terms (boldness) describes the liberty with which the newborn Church of the redeemed address themselves to God the Father and the unchecked freedom of their petitions, the latter (admittance) takes us back to the act of Christ by which He introduced us to the Father’s presence and gave us the place of sons in the house. Being thus admitted, we may come with confidence of heart, though we be less than the least of saints. Accepted in the Beloved, we are within our right if we say to the Father:-

"Yet in Thy Son divinely great,

We claim Thy providential care.

Boldly we stand before Thy seat;

Our Advocate hath placed us there!"

"Wherefore," concludes the imprisoned apostle, "I beg you not to lose heart at my afflictions for you." Assuredly Paul did not pray that he should not lose heart, as some interpret his meaning. But he knew how his friends were fretting and wearying over his long captivity. Hence he writes to the Philippians: "I would have you know that the things which have happened to me have turned out rather to the furtherance of the gospel." Hence, too, he assures the Colossians earnestly of his joy in suffering for their sake. [Ephesians 1:1-23]

The Church was fearful for Paul’s life and distressed by his prolonged sufferings. It missed his cheering presence and the inspiration of his voice. But if the Church is so dear to God as the pages of this letter show, and grounded in His eternal purposes, then let all friends of Christ take courage. The ark freighted with such fortunes cannot sink. St. Paul is a martyr for Christ, and for Gentile Christendom! Every stroke that falls upon him, every day added to the months of his imprisonment helps to show the worth of the cause he has espoused and gives to it increased lustre: "my afflictions for you, which are your glory."

Those that love him should boast rather than grieve over his afflictions. "We make our boast in you amongst the Churches of God," he wrote to the distressed Thessalonians, [2 Thessalonians 1:4] "for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and afflictions"; so he would have the Churches think of him. When good men suffer in a good cause, it is not matter for pity and dread, but rather for a holy pride.


Verses 14-18

Chapter 14

PRAYER AND PRAISE. THE COMPREHENSION OF CHRIST

Ephesians 3:14-18

IN Ephesians 3:14 the prayer is resumed which the apostle was about to offer at the beginning of the chapter, when the current of his thoughts carried him away. The supplication is offered "for this cause" (Ephesians 3:1, Ephesians 3:14)-it arises out of the teachings of the preceding pages. Thinking of all that God has wrought in the Christ, and has accomplished by means of His gospel in multitudes of Gentiles as well as Jews, reconciling them to Himself in one body and forming them together into a temple for His Spirit, the apostle bows his knees before God on their behalf. So much he had in mind when at the end of the second chapter he was in act to pray for the Asian Christians that they might be enabled to enter into this far-reaching purpose. Other aspects of the great design of God arose upon the writer’s mind before his prayer could find expression. He has told us of his own part in disclosing it to the world, and of the interest it excites amongst the dwellers in heavenly places, -thoughts full of comfort for the Gentile believers troubled by his imprisonment and continued sufferings. These further reflections add new meaning to the "For this cause" repeated from Ephesians 3:1.

The prayer which he offers here is no less remarkable and unique in his epistles than the act of praise in chapter 1. Addressing himself to God as the Father of angels and of men, the apostle asks that He will endow the readers in a manner corresponding to the wealth of His glory-in other words, that the gifts he bestows may be worthy of the universal Father, worthy of the august character in which God has now revealed Himself to mankind. According to this measure, St. Paul beseeches for the Church, in the first instance, two gifts, which after all are one, -viz., the inward strength of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:16), and the permanent indwelling of Christ (Ephesians 3:17). These gifts he asks on his readers’ behalf. with a view to their gaining two further blessings, which are also one, -viz., the power to understand the Divine plan (Ephesians 3:18) as it has been expounded in this letter, and so to know the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:19). Still, beyond these there rises in the distance a further end for man and the Church: the reception of the entire fulness of God. Human desire and thought thus reach their limit: they grasp at the infinite.

In this chapter we will strive to follow the apostle’s prayer to the end of the eighteenth verse, where it arrives at its chief aim and touches the main thought of the epistle, expressing the desire that all believers may have power to realise the full scope of the salvation of Christ in which they participate.

Let us pause for a moment to join in St. Paul’s invocation: "I bow my knees to the Father, of whom [not the whole family, but] every family in heaven and upon earth is named." The point of St. Paul’s original phrase is somewhat lost in translation. The Greek word for family (patria) is based on that for father (pater). A distinguished father anciently gave his name to his descendants; and this paternal name became the bond of family or tribal union, and the title which ennobled the race. So we have "the sons of Israel," the "sons of Aaron" or "of Korah"; and in Greek history the Atridae, the Alcmae-onidae, who form a family of many kindred households -a clan, or gens, designated by their ancestral head. Thus Joseph {in Luke 2:4} is described as "being of the house and family [patrio] of David"; and Jesus is "the Son of David." Now Scripture speaks also of sons of God; and these of two chief orders. There are those "in heaven," who form a race distinct from ourselves in origin-divided, it may be, amongst themselves into various orders and dwelling in their several homes in the heavenly places.

Of these are the sons of God whom the book of Job pictures appearing in the Divine court and forming a "family in heaven." When Christ promises [Luke 20:36] that His disciples in their immortal state will be "equal to the angels," because they are "sons of God," it is implied that the angels are already and by birthright sons of God. Hence in Hebrews 12:22-23 the angels are described as "the festal gathering and assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven." We, the sons of Adam, with our many tribes and kindreds, through Jesus Christ our Elder Brother constitute a new family of God. God becomes our Name-father, and permits us also to call ourselves His sons through faith. Thus the Church of believers in the Son of God constitutes the "family on earth named" from the same Father who gave His name to the holy angels, our wise and strong and brilliant elder brothers. They and we are alike God’s offspring. Heaven and earth are kindred spheres.

This passage gives to God’s Fatherhood the same extension that Ephesians 1:21 has given to Christ’s Lordship. Every order of creaturely intelligence acknowledges God for the Author of its being, and bows to Christ as its sovereign Lord. In God’s name of Father the entire wealth of love that streams forth from Him through endless ages and unmeasured worlds is hidden; and in the name of sons of God there is contained the blessedness of all creatures that can bear His image.

I. What, therefore, shall the universal Father be asked to give to His needy children upon earth? They have newly learnt His name; they are barely recovered from the malady of their sin, fearful of trial, weak to meet temptation. Strength is their first necessity: "I bow my knees to the Father of heaven and earth, praying that He may grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened by the entering of the Spirit into your inward man." The apostle asked them in Ephesians 3:13, in view of the greatness of his own calling, to be of good courage on his account; now he entreats God so to reveal to them His glory and to pour into their hearts His Spirit, that no weakness and fear may remain in them. The strengthening of which he speaks is the opposite of the faintness of heart, the failure of courage deprecated in Ephesians 3:13. Using the same word, the apostle bids the Corinthians "Quit themselves like men, be strong". [1 Corinthians 16:13] He desires for the Asian believers a manful heart, the strength that meets battle and danger without quailing. The source of this strength is not in ourselves. We are to be "strengthened with [or by] power, "- by "the power" of God "working in us" (Ephesians 3:20), the very same "power exceeding great," that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. [Ephesians 1:19] This superhuman might of God operating in men is always referred to the Holy Spirit: "by power made strong," he says, "through the Spirit." Nothing is more familiar in Scripture than the conception of the indwelling Spirit of God as the source of moral strength. The special power that belongs to the gospel Christ ascribes altogether to this cause. "Ye shall receive power," He said to His disciples, "after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you." Hence is derived the vigour of a strong faith, the valour of the good soldier of Christ Jesus, the courage of the martyrs, the cheerful and indomitable patience of multitudes of obscure sufferers for righteousness’ sake. There is a great truth expressed when we describe a brave and. enterprising man as a man of spirit. All high and commanding qualities of soul come from this invisible source. They are inspirations. In the human will, with its vis vivida, its elasticity and buoyancy, its steadfastness and resolved purpose, is the highest type of force and the image of the almighty Will. When that will is animated and filled with "the Spirit," the man so possessed is the embodiment of an inconceivable power. Firm principle, hope and constancy, self-mastery, superiority to pleasure and pain, -all the elements of a noble courage are proper to the man of the Spirit. Such power is not neutralised by our infirmities; it asserts itself under their limiting conditions and makes them its contributories. "My grace is sufficient for thee," said Christ to His disabled servant; "for power is perfected in weakness." In privation and loneliness, in old age and bodily decay, the strength of God in the human spirit shines with its purest lustre. Never did St. Paul rise to such a height of moral ascendency as at the time when he was "smitten down" and all but destroyed by persecution and affliction. "That the excellency of the power," he says, "may be of God and not from ourselves". [2 Corinthians 4:7-11]

The apostle points to "the inner man" as the seat of this invigoration, thinking perhaps of its secrecy. While the world buffets and dismays the Christian, new vigour and joy are infused into his soul. The surface waters and summer brooks of comfort fail; but there opens in the heart a spring fed by the river of life proceeding from the throne of God. Beneath the toil worn frame, the mean attire, and friendless condition of the prisoner Paul - a mark for the world’s scorn- there lives a strength of thought and will mightier than the empire of the Caesars, a power of the Spirit that is to dominate the centuries to come. Of this omnipotent power dwelling in the Church of God, the apostle prays that every one of his readers may partake.

II. Parallel to the first petition, and in substance identical with it, is the second: "that the Christ may make His dwelling through faith in your hearts." Such, it seems to us, is the relation of Ephesians 3:16-17. Christ’s residence in the heart is to be viewed neither as the result, nor the antecedent of the strength given by the Spirit to the inward man: the two are simultaneous: they are the same things seen in a varying light.

We observe in this prayer the same vein of Trinitarian thought which marks the doxology of chapter 1., and other leading passages in this epistle. The Father, the Spirit, and the Christ are unitedly the object of the apostle’s devout supplication.

As in the previous clause, the verb of Ephesians 3:17 bears emphasis and conveys the point of St. Paul’s entreaty; he asks that "the Christ may take up His abode, -may settle in your hearts." The word signifies to set up one’s house or make one’s home in a place, by way of contrast with a temporary and uncertain sojourn. {comp. Ephesians 2:19} The same verb in Colossians 2:9 asserts that in Christ "dwells all the fulness of the Godhead"; and in Colossians 1:19 it declares, used in the same tense as here, how it was God’s "pleasure that all the fulness should make its dwelling in Him" now raised from the dead, who had emptied and humbled Himself to fulfil the purpose of the Father’s love. So it is desired that Christ should take His seat within us. He is never again to stand at the door and knock, nor to have a doubtful and disputed footing in the house. Let the Master come in, and claim His own. Let Him become the heart’s fixed tenant and full occupier. Let Him, if He will thus condescend, make Himself at home within us and there rest in His love. For He promised: "If any man love me, my Father will love him; and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him."

And "the Christ," not Christ alone. Why does the apostle say this? There is a reason for the definite article, as we have found elsewhere. The apostle is asking for his Asian brethren something beyond that possession of Christ which belongs to every true Christian, -more even than the permanence and certainty of this indwelling indicated by the verb. "The Christ" is Christ in the significance of His name. It is Christ not only possessed, but understood, -Christ realised in the import of His work, in the light of His relationship to the Father and the Spirit, and to men. It is the Christ of the Church and the ages-known and accepted for all this-that St. Paul would fain have dwelling in the heart of each of his Gentile disciples. He is endeavouring to raise them to an adequate comprehension of the greatness of the Redeemer’s person and offices; he longs to have their minds possessed by his own views of Christ Jesus the Lord.

The heart, in the language of the Bible, never denotes the emotional nature by itself. The antithesis of "heart and head," the divorce of feeling and understanding in our modern speech is foreign to Scripture. The heart is our interior, conscious self-thought, feeling, will in their personal unity. It needs the whole Christ to fill and rule the whole heart, -a Christ who is the Lord of the intellect, the Light of the reason, no less than the Master of the feelings and desires. The difference in significance between "Christ" or "Christ Jesus" and "the Christ" in such a sentence as this, is not unlike the difference between "Queen Victoria" and "the Queen." The latter phrase brings Her Majesty before us in the grandeur and splendour of her Queen-ship. We think of her vast dominion, of her line of royal and famous ancestry, of her beneficent and memorable reign. So, to know the Christ is to apprehend Him in the height of His Godhead, in the breadth of His humanity, in the plenitude of His nature and His powers. And this is the object to which the teaching and the prayers of St. Paul for the Churches at the present time are directed. Understanding in this larger sense the indwelling of the Christ for which he prays, we see how naturally his supplication expands into the "height and depth" of the ensuing verse.

But however large the mental conception of Christ that St. Paul desires to impart to us, it is to be grasped "through faith." All real understanding and appropriation of Christ, the simplest and the most advanced come in by this channel, through the faith of the heart in which knowledge, will, and feeling blend in that one act of trustful apprehension of the truth concerning Jesus Christ by which the soul commits itself to Him.

How much is contained in this petition of the apostle that we need to ask for ourselves. Christ Jesus dwells now as then in the hearts of all who love Him. But how little do we know our heavenly Guest! how poor a Christ is ours, compared to the Christ of Paul’s experience! how slight and. empty a word is His name to multitudes of those who bear it! If men have once attained a sense of His salvation, and are satisfied of their interest in His atonement and their right to hope for eternal life through Him, their minds are at rest. They have accepted Christ and received what He has to give them; they turn their attention to other things. They do not love Christ enough to study Him. They have other mental interests, -scientific, literary, political, or industrial; but the knowledge of Christ has no intellectual attraction for them. With St. Paul’s passionate ardour, the ceaseless craving of his mind to "know Him, " these complacent believers have no sympathy whatever. This, they think, belongs only to a few, to men of metaphysical bias or of religious genius like the great apostle. Theology is regarded as a subject for specialists. The laity, with a lamentable and disastrous neglect, leave the study of Christian doctrine to the ministry. The Christ cannot take His due place in His people’s heart, He will not reveal to them the wealth of His glory, while they know so little and care to know so little of Him. Now many can be found, outside the ranks of the ordained, that make a sacrifice of other favourite pursuits to meditate on Christ? what prosperous merchant, what active man of affairs is there who will spare an hour each day from his other gains "for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord"?-"If at the present time the religious life of the Church is languid, and if in its enterprises there is little of audacity and vehemence, a partial explanation is to be found in that decline of intellectual interest in the contents of the Christian Faith which has characterised the last hundred or hundred and fifty years of our history."

It is a knowledge that when pursued grows upon the mind without limit. St. Paul, who knew so much, for that reason felt that all he had attained was but in the bud and beginning. "The Christ" is a subject infinite as nature, large and wide as history. With our enlarged apprehension of Him, the heart enlarges in capacity and moral power. Not unfrequently, the study of Christ in Scripture and experience gives to unlettered men, to men whose mind before their conversion was dull and uninformed, an intellectual quality, a power of discernment and apprehension that trained scholars might envy. By such thoughtful, constant fellowship with Him the vigour of spirit and courage in affliction are sustained, that the apostle first asked from God on behalf of his anxious Gentile friends:

III. The prayers now offered might suffice, if St. Paul were concerned only for the individual needs of those to whom he writes and their personal advancement in the new life. But it is otherwise. The Church fills his mind. Its lofty claims at every turn he has pressed on our attention. This is God’s holy temple and the habitation of His Spirit; it is the body in which Christ dwells, the bride that He has chosen. The Church is the object that draws the eyes of heaven; through it the angelic powers are learning undreamed-of lessons of God’s wisdom. Round this centre the apostle’s intercession must needs revolve. When he asks for his readers added strength of heart and a richer fellowship with Christ, it is in order that they may be the better able to enter into the Church’s life and to apprehend God’s great designs for mankind.

This object so much absorbs the writer’s thoughts and has been so constantly in view from the outset, that it does not occur to him, in Ephesians 3:18, to say precisely what that is whose "breadth and length and height and depth" the readers are to measure. The vast building stands before us and needs not to be named; we have only not to look away from it, not to forget what we have been reading all this time. It is God’s plan for the world in Christ; it is the purpose of the ages realised in the building of His Church. This conception was so impressive to the original readers and has held their attention so closely since the apostle unfolded it in the course of the second chapter, that they would have no difficulty in supplying the ellipsis which has given so much trouble to the commentators since.

If we are asked to interpret the four several magnitudes that are assigned to this building of God, we may say with Hofmann: "It stretches wide over all the world of the nations, east and west. In its length, it reaches through all time unto the end of things. In depth, it penetrates to the region where the faithful sleep in death. {comp. Ephesians 4:9} And it rises to heaven’s height where Christ lives." In the like strain Bernardine a Piconio, most genial and spiritual of Romanist interpreters: "Wide as the furthest limits of the inhabited world, long as the ages of eternity through which God’s love to His people will endure, deep as the abyss of misery and ruin from which He has raised us, high as the throne of Christ in the heavens where He has placed us." Such is the commonwealth to which we belong, such the dimensions of this city of God built on the foundation of the apostles, "that lieth four-square."

Do we not need to be strong- to "gain full strength," as the apostle prays, in order to grasp in its substance and import this immense revelation and to handle it with practical effect? Narrowness is feebleness. The greatness of the Church, as God designed it, matches the greatness of the Christ Himself. It needs a firm spiritual faith, a far-seeing intelligence, and a charity broad as the love of Christ to comprehend this mystery. From many believing eyes it is still hidden. Alas for our cold hearts, our weak and partial judgments! alas for the materialism that infects our Church theories, and that limits God’s free grace and the sovereign action of His Spirit to visible channels and ministrations "wrought by hand." Those who call themselves Churchmen and Catholics contradict the titles they boast when they bar out their loyal Christian brethren from the covenant rights of faith, when they deny churchly standing to communities with a love to Christ as warm and fruitful in good works, a gospel as pure and saving, a discipline at least as faithful as their own. Who are we that we dare to forbid those who are doing mighty works in the name of Christ, because they follow not with us? When we are fain to pull down every building of God that does not square with our own ecclesiastical plans, we do not apprehend "what is the breadth"! We draw close about us the walls of Christ’s wide house, as if to confine Him in our single chamber. We call our particular communion "the Church," and the rest "the sects"; and disfranchise, so far as our word and judgment go, a multitude of Christ’s freemen and God’s elect, our fellow-citizens in the new Jerusalem-saints, some of them, whose feet we well might deem ourselves unworthy to wash. A Church theory that leads to such results as these, that condemns Nonconformists to be strangers in the House of God, is self-condemned. It will perish of its own chillness and formalism. Happily, many of those who hold the doctrine of exclusive Roman or Anglican, or Baptist or Presbyterian legitimacy, are in feeling and practice more catholic than in their creed.

"With all the saints" the Asian Christians are called to enter into St. Paul’s wider view of God’s work in the world. For this is a collective idea, to be shared by many minds and that should sway all Christian hearts at once. It is the collective aim of Christianity that St. Paul wants his readers to understand, its mission to save humanity and to reconstruct the world for a temple of God. This is a calling for all the saints; but only for saints, -for men devoted to God and renewed by His Spirit. It was "revealed to His holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5); and it needs men of the same quality for its bearers and interpreters.

But the first condition for this largeness of sympathy and aim is that stated at the beginning of the verse, thrown forward there with an emphasis that almost does violence to grammar: "in love being fast rooted and grounded." Where Christ dwells abidingly in the heart, love enters with Him and becomes the ground of our nature, the basis on which our thought and action rest, the soil in which our purposes grow. Love is. the mark of the true Broad Churchman in all Churches, the man to whom Christ is all things and in all, and who, wherever he sees a Christlike man, loves him and counts him a brother.

When such love to Christ fills all our hearts and penetrates to their depths, we shall have strength to shake off our prejudices, strength to master our intellectual difficulties and limitations. We shall have the courage to adopt Christ’s simple rule of fellowship: "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother."


Verses 17-19

Chapter 15

KNOWING THE UNKNOWABLE

Ephesians 3:17-19

WE were compelled to pause before reaching the end of the apostle’s comprehensive prayer. But we must not let slip the thread of its connection. Ephesians 3:19 is the necessary sequel and counterpart of Ephesians 3:18. The catholic love which embraces "all the saints" and "comprehends" in its wide dimensions the extent of the Redeemer’s kingdom, admits us to a deeper knowledge of Christ’s own love. The breadth and length, the height and depth of the work of Christ in men and the ages give us a worthier conception of the love that inspired and sustains it. "In the Church" at once "and in Christ Jesus" God’s glory is revealed. Our Church views react upon our views of Christ and our sense of His love. Bigotry and exclusiveness towards His brethren chill the heart towards Himself. Our sectarianism stints and narrows our apprehensions of the Divine grace.

I. St. Paul prays that we may "know (not comprehend) the love of Christ"; for it "passes knowledge." Amongst the Greek words denoting mental activity, that here employed signifies knowledge in the acquisition rather than possession - getting to know. Hence it is rightly, and often used of things Divine that "we know in part," our knowledge of which falls short of the reality while it is growing up to it. Thus understood, the contradiction of the apostle’s wish disappears. We know the unknowable, just as we "clearly see the invisible things of God". [Romans 1:20] The idea is conveyed of an object that invites our observation and pursuit, but which at every step outreaches apprehension, each discovery revealing depths within it unperceived before. Such was the knowledge of Christ to the soul of St. Paul. To the Philippians the aged apostle writes: "I do not reckon myself to have apprehended Him. I am in pursuit! I forget the past; I press on eagerly to the goal I have but one object in view and sacrifice everything for it, - that I may win Christ:"

In all the mystery of Christ, there is nothing more wonderful and past finding out than His love. For nigh thirty years Paul has been living in daily fellowship with the love of Christ, his heart full of it and all the powers of his mind bent upon its comprehension: he cannot understand it yet! At this moment it amazes him more than ever.

Great as the Christian community is, and large as the place and part assigned to it by this epistle, that is still finite and a creation of time. The apostle’s doctrine of the Church is not beyond the comprehension of a mind sufficiently loving and enlightened. But though we had followed him so far and had well and truly apprehended the mystery he has revealed to us, the love of Christ is still beyond us. Our principles of judgment and standards of comparison fail us when applied to this subject. Human love has in many instances displayed heroic qualities; it can rise to a divine height of purity and tenderness; but its noblest sacrifices will not bear to be put by the side of the cross of Christ. No picture of that love but shows poor and dull compared with the reality; no eloquence lavished upon it but lowers the theme. Our logical framework of doctrine fails to enclose and hold it; the love of Christ defies analysis and escapes from all our definitions. Those who know the world best, who have ranged through history and philosophy and the life of living men and have measured most generously the possibilities of human nature, are filled with a wondering reverence when they come to know the love of Christ. "Never man spake like this man," said one; but verily never man loved like Jesus Christ. He expects to be loved more than father or mother; for His love surpasses theirs. We cannot describe His love, nor delineate its features as Paul saw them when he wrote these lines. Go to the Gospels, and behold it as it lived and wrought for men. Stand and watch at the cross. Then if the eyes of your heart are open, you will see the great sight-the love that passeth knowledge.

When, turning from Christ Himself to His own person and presence, before whom praise is speechless, we contemplate the manifestations of His love to mankind; when we consider that its fountain lies in the bosom of the Eternal; when we trace its footsteps prepared from the world’s foundation, and perceive it choosing a people for its own and making its promises and raising up its heralds and forerunners; when at last it can hide and refrain itself no longer, but comes forth incarnate with lowly heart to take our infirmities and carry our diseases-yea, to put away our sin by the sacrifice of itself; when we behold that same Love which the hands of men had slain, setting up its cross for the sign of its covenant of peace with mankind, and enthroned in the majesty of heaven waiting even as a bridegroom joyously for the time when its ransomed shall be brought home, redeemed from iniquity and gathered unto itself from all the kindreds of the earth; and when we see how this mystery of love, in its sufferings and glories and its deep-laid plans for all the creatures, engages the ardent study and sympathy of the heavenly principalities, -in view of these things, who can but feel himself unworthy to know the love of Christ or to speak one word on its behalf? Are we not ready to say like Peter, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord"?

This is a revelation that searches every man’s soul who looks into it. What is there so confounding to our reason and our human self-complacency as the discovery: "He loved me; He gave Himself up for me"-that He should do it, and should need to do it! It was this that went to Saul’s heart, that gave the mortal blow to the Jewish pride in him, strong as it was with the growth of centuries. The bearer of this grace and the ambassador of Christ’s love to the Gentiles, he feels himself to be "less than the least of all the saints." We carry in our hands to show to men a heavenly light, which throws our own unloveliness into dark relief.

II. The love of Christ connects together, in the apostle’s thoughts, the greatness of the Church and the fulness of God. The two former conceptions-Christ’s love and the Church’s greatness-go together in our minds; knowing them, we are led onwards to the realisation of the last. The "fulness (pleroma) of God," and the "filling (or completing) of believers in Christ" are ideas characteristic of this group of epistles. The first of these expressions we have discussed already in its connection with Christ, in Ephesians 1:23; we shall meet with it again as "the fulness of Christ" in Ephesians 4:13. The phrase before us is, in substance, identical with that of the latter text. Christ contains the Divine plenitude; He embodies it in His person, and conveys, it to the world by His redemption. St. Paul desires for the Asian Christians that they may receive it; it is the ultimate mark of his prayer. He wishes them to gain the total sum of all that God communicates to men. He would have them "filled"-their nature made complete both in its individual and social relations, their powers of mind and heart brought into full exercise, their spiritual capacities developed and replenished-"filled unto all the plenitude of God."

This is no humanistic or humanitarian ideal. The mark of Christian completeness is on a different and higher plane than any. that is set up by culture. The ideal Christian is a greater man than the ideal citizen or artist or philosopher: he may include within himself any or all of these characters, but he transcends them. He may conform to none of these types, and yet be a perfect man in Christ Jesus. Our race cannot rest in any perfection that stops short of "the fulness of God." When we have received all that God has to give in Christ, when the community of men is once more a family of God and the Father’s will is done on earth as in heaven, then and not before will our life be complete. That is the goal of humanity; and the civilisation that does not lead to it is a wandering from the way. "You are complete in Christ," says the apostle. The progress of the ages since confirms the saying.

The Apostle prays that his readers may know the love of Christ. This is a part of the Divine plenitude; nor is there anything in it deeper. But there is more to know. When he asks for "all the fulness," he thinks of other elements of revelation in which we are to participate. God’s wisdom, His truth, His righteousness, along with His love in its manifold forms, -all the qualities that, in one word, go to make up His holiness, are communicable and belong to the image stamped by the Holy Spirit on the nature of God’s children. "Ye shall be holy, for I am holy" is God’s standing command to His sons. So Jesus bids His disciples, "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." St. Paul’s prayer "is but another way of expressing the continuous aspiration and effort after holiness which is enjoined in our Lord’s precept" (Lightfoot).

While the holiness of God gathers up into one stream of white radiance the revelation of His character, "the fulness of God" spreads it abroad in its many-coloured, richness and variety. The term accords with the affluence of thought that marks this supplication. The might of the Spirit that strengthens weak human hearts, the greatness of the Christ who is the guest of our faith, His wide-spreading kingdom and the vast interests it embraces and His own love surpassing all, - these objects of the soul’s desire issue from the fulness of God; and they lead us in pursuing them, like streams pouring into the ocean, back to the eternal Godhead. The mediatorial kingdom has its end: Christ, when He has "put down all rule and authority": will at last "yield it up to His God and Father"; and "the Son Himself will be subjected to Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all". [1 Corinthians 15:24-28] This is the crown of the Redeemer’s mission, the end of which His love to the Father seeks. But when that end is reached, and the soul with immediate vision beholds the Father’s glory, the Plenitude will be still new and unexhausted; the soul will then begin its deepest lessons in the knowledge of God which is life eternal.

St. Paul is conscious of the extreme boldness of the prayer he has just uttered. But he protests that, instead of going beyond God’s purposes, it falls short of them. This assurance rises, in Ephesians 3:20-21, into a rapture of praise. It is a cry of exultation, a true song of triumph, that breaks from the Apostle’s lips:-

"Now unto Him that is able to do above all things, - Yea, far exceedingly beyond what we ask or think, -According to the power that worketh in us: To Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, Unto all generations of the age of the ages.-Amen!" (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Praise soars higher than prayer. When St. Paul has reached in supplication the summit of his desires, he sees the plenitude of God’s gifts still by a whole heaven outreaching him. But it is only from these mountain-tops hardly won in the exercise of prayer, in their still air and tranquil light, that the boundless realms of promise are visible. God’s giving surpasses immeasurably our thought and asking; but there must be the asking and the thinking for it to surpass. He puts always more into our hand and better things than we expected-when the expectant hand is reached out to Him.

Man’s desires will never overtake God’s bounty. Hearing the prayer just offered, unbelief will say: "You have asked too much. It is preposterous to expect that raw Gentile converts, scarcely raised above their heathen debasement, should enter into these exalted notions of yours about Christ and the Church and should be filled with the fulness of God! Prayer must be rational and within the bounds of possibility, offered ‘with the understanding’ as well as ‘with the spirit,’ or it becomes mere extravagance."-The apostle gives a twofold answer to this kind of scepticism. He appeals to the Divine omnipotence. "With men," you say, "this is impossible." Humanly speaking, St. Paul’s Gentile disciples were incapable of any high spiritual culture; they were unpromising material, with "not many wise or many noble" amongst them, some of them before their conversion stained with infamous vices. Who is to make saints and godlike men out of such human refuse as this! But "with God," as Jesus said, "all things are possible." Faex urbis, lux orbis: "the scum of the city is made the light of the world." The force at work upon the minds of these degraded pagans-slaves, thieves, prostitutes, as some of them had been-is the love of Christ; it is the power of the Holy Ghost, the might of the strength which raises the dead to life eternal.

Let us therefore praise Him "who is able to do beyond all things"-beyond the best that His best servants have wished and striven for. Had men ever asked or thought of such a gift to the world as Jesus Christ? Had the prophets foreseen one-tenth part of his greatness? In their boldest dreams did the disciples anticipate the wonders of the day of Pentecost and of the later miracles of grace accomplished by their preaching? How far exceedingly had these things already surpassed the utmost that the Church asked or thought.

St. Paul’s reliance is not upon the "ability" alone, upon the abstract omnipotence of God. The force upon which he counts is lodged in the Church, and is in visible and constant operation. "According to the power that worketh in us "he expects these vast results to be achieved. This power is the same as that he invoked in verse 16, -the might of the Spirit of God in the inward man. It is the spring of courage and joy, the source of religious intelligence [Ephesians 1:17-18] and personal holiness, the very power that raised the dead body of Jesus to life, as it will raise hereafter all the holy dead to share His immortality. [Romans 8:11] St. Paul was conscious at this time in a remarkable degree of the supernatural energy working within his own mind. It is of this that he speaks to the Colossians, in language very similar to that of our text, when he says: "I toil hard, striving according to His energy that works in me in power." As he labours for the Church in writing that epistle, he is sensible of another Power acting within his spirit, and distinguished from it by his consciousness, which tasks his faculties to the utmost to follow its dictates and express its meaning.

The presence of this mysterious power of the Spirit St. Paul constantly felt when engaged in prayer, -"The Spirit helpeth our infirmities"; He "makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered". [Romans 8:26-27] On this point the experience of earnest Christian believers in all ages confirms that of St. Paul. The sublime prayer to which he has just given utterance is not his own. There is more in it than the mere Paul, a weak man, would have dared to ask or think. He who inspires the prayer will fulfil it. The Searcher of hearts knows better than the man who conceived it, infinitely better than we who are trying for our own help to interpret it, all that this intercession means. God will hear the pleading of His Spirit. The Power that prompts our prayers, and the Power that grants their answer are the same. The former is limited in its action by human infirmity; the latter knows no limit. Its only measure is the fulness of God. To Him who works in us all good desires, and works far beyond us to bring our good desires to good effect, be the glory of all forever!

In such measure, then, shall glory be to God "in the Church and in Christ Jesus." We see how the Church takes up the foreground of Paul’s horizon. This epistle has taught us that God desires far more than our individual salvation, however complete that might be. Christ came not to save men only, but mankind. It is "in the Church" that God’s consummate glory will be seen. No man in his fragmentary self-hood, no number of men in their separate capacity can conceivably attain "unto the fulness of God." It will need all humanity for that, to reflect the full-orbed splendour of Divine revelation. Isolated and divided from each other, we render to God a dimmed and partial glory. "With one accord, with one mouth" we are called to "glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Wherefore the Apostle bids us "receive one another, as Christ also received us, to the glory of God". [Romans 15:6-7]

The Church, being the creation of God’s love in Christ and the receptacle of His communicative fulness, is the vessel formed for His praise. Her worship is a daily tribute to the Divine majesty and bounty. The life of her people in the world, her witness for Christ and warfare against sin, her ceaseless ministries to human sorrow and need proclaim the Divine goodness, righteousness, and truth. From the heavenly places where she dwells with Christ, she reflects the light of God’s glory, and makes it shine into the depths of evil at her feet. It was the Church’s voice that St. John heard in heaven as "the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunders; saying, Hallelujah: for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigneth!" Each soul new-born into the fellowship of faith adds another note to make up the multitudinous harmony of the Church’s praise to God.

Nor does the Church by herself alone render this praise and honour unto God. The display of God’s manifold wisdom in His dealings with mankind is drawing admiration, as St. Paul believed, from the celestial spheres (Ephesians 3:10). The story of earth’s redemption is the theme of endless songs in heaven. All creation joins in concert with the redeemed from the earth, and swells the chorus of their triumph. "I heard," says John, in another place, "a voice of many angels round about the throne, and the living creatures, and the elders, saying with a great voice. Worthy is the Lamb that hath been slain! And every created thing which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and on the sea, and all things that are in them, heard I saying":

"Unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, Be blessing and honour and glory and dominion-For ever and ever."

But the Church is the centre of this tribute of the universe to God and to His Christ. The Church and Christ Jesus are wedded in this doxology, even as they were in the foregoing supplication (Ephesians 3:18-19). In the Bride and the Bridegroom, in the Redeemed and the Redeemer, in the many brethren and in the Firstborn is this perfect glory to be paid to God. "In the midst of the congregation" Christ the Son of man sings evermore the Father’s praise. [Hebrews 2:12] No glory is paid to God by men which is not due to Him; nor does He render to the Father any tribute in which His people are without a share. "The glory which thou hast given me I have given them," said Jesus to the Father praying for His Church, "that they may be one, even as we are one". [John 17:22] Our union with each other in Christ is perfected by our union with Him in realising the Father’s glory, in receiving and manifesting the fulness of God.

The duration of the glory to be paid to God by Christ and His Church is expressed by a cumulative phrase in keeping with the tenor of the passage to which it belongs: "unto all generations of the age of the ages." It reminds us of "the ages to come" through which the apostle in Ephesians 2:7 foresaw that God’s mercy to his own age would be celebrated. It carries our thoughts along the vista of the future, till time melts into eternity. When the apostle desires that God’s praise may resound in the Church "unto all generations, " he no longer supposes that the mystery of God may be finished speedily as men count years. The history of mankind stretches before his gaze into its dim futurity. The successive "generations" gather themselves into that one consummate "age" of the kingdom of God, the grand cycle in which all "the ages" are contained. With its completion time itself is no more. Its swelling current, laden with the tribute of all the worlds and all their histories, reaches the eternal ocean.

The end comes: God is all in all. At this furthest horizon of thought, Christ and His own are seen together rendering to God unceasing glory.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ephesians 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ephesians-3.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Monday, July 24th, 2017
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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