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183

CHAPTER XIV.

THE COMPREHENSION OF CHRIST.

“For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and upon earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inward man; that the Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.”—Eph. iii. 14–18.

In verse 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” (vv. 1, 14),—it arises out of the teaching 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 rose 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 184 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 verse 1.

The prayer which he offers here is no less remarkable and unique in his epistles than the act of praise in chapter i. 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 (ver. 16), and the permanent indwelling of Christ (ver. 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 (ver. 18) as it has been expounded in this letter, and so to know the love of Christ (ver. 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 realize 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 185 [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 Atridæ, the Alcmæonidæ, who form a family of many kindred households—a clan, or gens, designated by their ancestral head. Thus Joseph (in Luke ii. 4) is described as “being of the house and family [patria] 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 xx. 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 xii. 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 186 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 chapter i. 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 verse 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 verse 13. Using the same word, the apostle bids the Corinthians “Quit themselves like men, be strong” (1 Ep. xvi. 13). He desires for the Asian believers a manful heart, the strength that meets battle and danger without quailing.

187 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” (ver. 20), the very same “power, exceeding great,” that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (i. 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 neutralized 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 188 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 Cor. iv. 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 Cæsars, 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 verses 16 and 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 i., 189 and other leading passages in this epistle.9494   See ch. i. 17, ii. 18, 22, and especially ch. iv. 4–6. 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 verse 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. ii. 19). The same verb in Colossians ii. 9 asserts that in Christ “dwells all the fulness of the Godhead”; and in Colossians i. 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.9595   See pp. 47, 83, 169. 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” 190 is Christ in the significance of His name. It is Christ not only possessed, but understood,—Christ realized 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 Queenship. 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 191 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 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 192 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. How 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 characterized the last hundred or hundred and fifty years of our history.”9696   Lectures on Ephesians, pp. 235–8. No one who has read Dr. R. W. Dale’s noble Lectures on this epistle, can write upon the same subject without being deeply in his debt.

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 193 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 verse 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 realized 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.

194 If we are asked to interpret the four several magnitudes that are assigned to this building of God, we may say with Hofmann9797   Der Brief Pauli an die Epheser, p. 138. Hofmann is one of those writers from whom one constantly learns, although one must as often differ from him as agree with him.: “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. iv. 9]. And it rises to heaven’s height, where Christ lives.” In the like strain Bernardine à 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 judgements! 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 195 “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 judgement 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 196 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” (ver. 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.”


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