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197

CHAPTER XV.

KNOWING THE UNKNOWABLE.

“[I pray] 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, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God.”—Eph. iii. 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 connexion. Verse 19 is the necessary sequel and counterpart of verse 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.” 198 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” (Rom. i. 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 199 principles of judgement 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 in 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 200 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 201 minds; knowing them, we are led onwards to the realization 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 connexion with Christ, in chapter i. 23; we shall meet with it again as “the fulness of Christ” in chapter iv. 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 202 civilization 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; 203 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 Cor. xv. 24–28). This is the crown of the Redeemer’s mission, the end 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 verses 20 and 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!”

(vv. 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 204 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.” Fæx 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 205 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 (i. 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 (Rom. viii. 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” (Rom. viii. 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 206 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 for ever!

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” (Rom. xv. 6, 7).

The Church, being the creation of God’s love in Christ and the receptacle of His communicative fulness, 207 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 (ver. 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 the 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.”

208 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 (vv. 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 (Heb. ii. 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 xvii. 22). Our union with each other in Christ is perfected by our union with Him in realizing 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 chapter ii. 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” 209 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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