Ephesians 3:14-21 Knowing a love that surpasses knowledge

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Here is a brief recap of my study thus far of this prayer for the Ephesian believers:
Like some people who like to read the last chapter to see if the book is going to be good, I started near the end of the request-portion of Paul’s prayer to see where he was heading. The end result of Paul’s prayer, should God in his grace grant it (and he will because he inspired it!) is that we are “filled with all the fullness of God.” This phrase points to the completion of God’s work in us as he forms in us his very image and we become like him in all his moral perfection and beauty. Wow!

But how will he get us there? Paul prays first that we will experience the love of Jesus for us as the Holy Spirit reveals to us in our inner being that we are loved by him. This experience of Jesus’ love has a rooting and grounding effect in our lives. But here is where things start to really rev up!

There is more to a plant than the root and there is more to a building than the foundation. Having experienced Christ’s love through the indwelling Holy Spirit, there is still infinitely more yet to be experienced. The root is going to blossom into a full-grown plant someday and the building will one day be complete.

Here is where some of the teaching on the fullness of the Holy Spirit often leads people astray. Some believers put so much emphasis on the initial experience of being filled with the Spirit and the experience of Christ’s love for them in that moment, that they forget that it is only the beginning! It is only the root! Paul goes on to pray…

“…that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…”

Paul knows that to reach our goal of being filled with all the fullness of God, we need to have a constantly renewed experience of the love of God. In the words of C.S. Lewis in his final book of the Chronicles of Narnia…. “Further up and further in!”

Commentators do not all agree on what the four dimensions mentioned in v. 18 refer to, but I think the best interpretation takes them as referring to the love of Christ mentioned in v. 19. After all, what is the “breadth” of God’s love? What is its length? What is its height and its depth? Can it be measured at all? How does one measure the love of the Father in sending his Son to take the penalty of death that we as a rebellious race deserved for our sins? None of us has grasped the dimensions of God’s love that was displayed toward us at Calvary. As v. 19 says, it “surpasses knowledge

We can’t fully grasp God’s love because we have never seen the depths of our sin. We may believe that Jesus died for bad people, or even for really bad people or even really, really wicked people, but we have no idea what is in our hearts apart from the grace of God. This has been a long-term search for me personally. I want God to show me the depths of my sin so that I can more fully appreciate what Jesus did for me.

We can’t fully grasp God’s love because we can’t fully see the infinite glory of God. We have no idea whom we have scorned in turning away from God to follow our own ways. If we knew, truly knew, the God we reject every time we sin, we would fall on our faces and call for the mountains to fall on us. And we would see so much more clearly the condescension of his love in saving us through the sacrifice of his Son.

Let me backtrack a bit and talk about two important words in the text that support my premise that what Paul is asking God for in this prayer is that we might experience God’s love for us in Christ. In v. 18, he prays that we may be able to “comprehend” the love of God. And in v. 19, he prays that we may “know” the love of Christ. The word translated “comprehend” is a strengthened form of the verb “to grasp” and means to “fully understand” The word translated “know” can mean simply “to understand” but it often is used to denote a knowledge by experience–a knowledge of things as they really are.

Paul certainly is not just praying that we will have an intellectual and theological understanding of the love of God. Word studies aside, the context cries for an understanding of these verbs as relating to an experiential knowledge of the love of God. Besides, how else (other than experience) can one know something that “surpasses knowledge”? Paul desires that we will have an ongoing, deepening, broadening, lengthening experience of a reality that we will never exhaust–the love of Christ.

I have a theory regarding the words “with all the saints” that I would like to throw out for your consideration, and if anyone is still reading by this point, perhaps you could leave me a comment with your take on this interpretation (I haven’t found it in any commentary).

Could it be that Paul prays that the Ephesians will be able to comprehend “with all the saints” because he knows that it is only in heaven that all the saints will have this experience that he writes about in verses 18-19? In other words, only in heaven will this prayer be answered fully, and it will be answered for “all the saints.” We will all be filled up to all the fullness of God as we experience the love of Christ flowing to us with the same intensity with which it flows among the members of the Trinity, and that for all eternity.

It is a glorious thought, and I could write a lot more about this glorious prayer, but I have other responsibilities beyond writing for a blog!

So let me conclude this four-part study of this wonderful prayer with this comment: Pray this prayer for yourself and for the believers you fellowship with and for all of us as God’s children. Pray that God would grant us all the faith to believe that by His Spirt indwelling us we can have fellowship with Jesus that is even more intimate than the apostles experienced when they were walking with Jesus in the flesh. Believe that God wants to bless you with this kind of closeness and intimacy with Jesus, and no matter what your experience or lack of experience has been in the past… he is “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us…”

Books Theology

90 Minutes in Heaven

Sometimes I wonder how many times this book sells because people assume it was written by JOHN Piper.  If you aren’t familiar with either Don or John, let me introduce them to you.  Don Piper is a pastor who has written a book chronicling his experiences surrounding a terrible automobile accident.  He believes that he died and spent 90 minutes in heaven before God miraculously brought him back to life.

John Piper, on the other hand, also a preacher, has written dozens of books in which he presents the glorious gospel of the Savior, Jesus Christ, who died on a cross and suffered the condemnation and wrath of God that sinful humanity deserves so that those who are united with him through faith can experience reconciliation with God and the full enjoyment of God’s glory for all eternity in heaven.

In this post, I want to take a brief look at DON Piper’s book in the light of Scripture…

My 14 year old son read D.P.’s book and liked it initially, but the more we talked about it together, the more we came to the conclusion that there was something wrong.  Any experience that a believer has needs to be held up to the Word of God and evaluated in its light.  When we did this to D.P.’s experience we found the following problems.

1.  D.P.’s “experience of heaven” didn’t include Jesus

Surely Jesus is the “principal attraction” of heaven and would be prominent in any genuine experience.  Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” and in Philippians 1:23, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” When we die, we will immediately be with Jesus. We will not be in a tunnel and we will not be in heaven “waiting” to see him. I think that based on these scriptures it is safe to assume that Jesus will be the very first person or thing that we see when we die. D.P.’s experience just doesn’t seem to fit with these verses. Does that mean that he is a bad person or intentionally trying to deceive people? Absolutely not, but he needs to look at his experience and seek to understand it in light of Scripture.

It also strikes me that a friend of mine who follows another major world religion has had four surgeries and describes very similar experiences to what many Christians claim to have experienced through near death experiences–being in a long mirrored tunnel with very bright light at the other end. In his case, it strikes me as a demonic deception that he is “OK with God” spiritually and ready to die, and not a genuine experience of whatever lies beyond the grave for him.

2.  Scripture is clear that man dies only once.

Nowhere in Scripture is there any account of someone going “halfway.” There are, however, plenty of examples of people who actually died physically and were raised back to life, both before and after Christ. God certainly raises the dead and he may very well have raised Don Piper from the dead! But I find it interesting that in every single one of these recorded biblical resurrections absolutely nothing is ever said about what these individuals experienced.

Scripture also says that it is “appointed for man to die once, and then comes the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27). In my thinking, the only way to understand Heb. 9:27 in light of the many recorded resurrections is that when those individuals died, even though they died physically, their souls did not go to heaven. I certainly don’t believe in the erroneous doctrine of “soul sleep”, but I think that this is a reasonable understanding of Heb. 9:27. When God determines to raise someone from the dead, he knows that it is not their time to die, and so he doesn’t take their soul to heaven, but rather restores physical life to their body. I understand that this is just an inference on my part, but I think it is a reasonable one.

3.  Scripture is clear that “back from the dead” experiences will not bring people to faith.

Isn’t it interesting that none of the resurrected individuals recorded in Scripture shared their experience with others? Perhaps it is because there was nothing to share! And even if there was some sort of experience to share, Jesus made it clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 that such experiences are not what God has sovereignly determined to use in the conversion of sinners. Luke 16:31 “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Rather, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)

What is lacking in D.P.’s book is the clear, straightforward presentation of the simple biblical gospel, (the one the other Piper preaches). Testimonies are great, but they should point to our wonderful Savior and what he did for us when he took our punishment upon himself so that we might be reconciled to the Father.

If you want to read my son’s review of the book, you can find it here.

Bible Study Cross-Centered Life Theology

Plumbing the depths of mercy and grace

I was thinking today about the difficulty we have in truly understanding the extent of God’s mercy and grace toward his children.  

Let’s start with some definitions:  By mercy, I’m referring to God’s love expressed in his not treating us as we deserve to be treated.  By grace, I’m referring to God’s love expressed in his giving us what we don’t deserve to receive.  The Newsboys say it well…

When we don’t get what we deserve… it’s a real good thing…

When we get what we don’t deserve… it’s a real good thing…

The first line is mercy; the second is grace. 

Now, the problem lies in trying to comprehend the extent of God’s mercy and grace to us.  In order to fully grasp God’s mercy, we must be able to fully comprehend what we deserve from God.  Because we have difficulty fully grasping the wrath of God against sin, we struggle to fully appreciate the mercy God shows us when he saves us from that wrath.  

There are two primary places we can look in order to grasp more fully God’s mercy:  The Cross of Christ, where God’s wrath was put on Jesus as our substitute, and Hell, where God’s wrath will be poured out on unrepentant sinners for all eternity.  Both of these are revealed to us in the Scripture, and we have access to them as we meditate on Scripture and are taught by the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, in order to fully grasp God’s grace, we must be able to fully comprehend what we have received from God.  I believe that just as we struggle to comprehend God’s wrath,  we also struggle to fully appreciate just what we have received in our salvation.

Our salvation is so much more than just God’s merciful forgiveness of our sins.  He doesn’t just forgive us and then let us start over again to prove our ability to serve him and follow him as our God.  He heaps upon us blessing after blessing, by virtue of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Christ, we receive what Jesus deserves.  This is the “spiritual inheritance” that is mentioned so often in the Bible.

Only in eternity will we be able to fully grasp God’s grace because we will experience in heaven the fullness of our salvation.  We will receive our spiritual inheritance that right now is “kept in heaven” for us (1 Peter 1:4).

Only in eternity will we be able to fully grasp God’s mercy because we will witness God’s righteous judgment of unbelievers. Revelation 14:9-10 says, 

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.

 We will be “in Christ” for all eternity, and in his presence, we will see what we deserve to receive, and I believe we will appreciate the cross as never before.  This idea seemed very radical to me when I first read it in one of Jonathan Edward’s  sermons, but I believe Edwards is faithfully teaching us what God has revealed in his Word.